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How Hydrothermal Vents Support Bacteria, Worms And Other Creatures

Ocean floors are mysterious places. Thought to be empty because of pressure, temperature & lack of light, they're amazing scientists with an array of organisms.

Three girls looking at an ocean exhibit at a zoo

Photo: June Hong (Flickr)

The ocean is an amazing and unique place.

Ocean floors are strange and mysterious places. Originally thought to be barren because of tremendous pressures, frigid temperatures and lack of light, they’re still surprising scientists with their array of wild and wonderful organisms. It now appears some of those organisms are traveling hundreds of miles on deep sea superhighways.

Hydrothermal Vents

Most life in the deep ocean is found around hydrothermal vents where hot water and minerals spew from the ocean floor at points where the tectonic plates are moving apart.

Even though vent water temperature is over 140 degrees Fahrenheit, and can be as acidic as vinegar, when it hits frigid ocean water it cools quickly enough to support life. Minerals precipitate out to form chimneys up to 180 feet high, and the surrounding area supports all kinds of bacteria, worms, snails, shrimp, fish, and octopuses.

All About Vents

Scientists have gathered lots of information about these deep sea communities, but many questions remain, including: how are the vents colonized in the first place?

Scientists studying a vent in the north Pacific were lucky enough to witness a natural experiment. In 2006, a vent they were studying erupted, killing all the organisms living there.

Scientists assumed that the chimney would be re colonized by animals from nearby vents. Much to their surprise, the first arrivals were not neighbors. Instead, tiny sea snail larvae came from over 186 miles away. Larvae can swim, but there was no way they could travel that distance during their thirty-day life span.

So What Was Happening?

Scientists assume sea snails are hitching rides on fast moving ocean bottom currents or eddies that propel them long distances. Now scientists need to discover how. It seems the ocean does not give up its mysteries easily.

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