Exploring the depths of the Caribbean Sea, a robotic submersible has found the deepest set of hydrothermal vents in the world – and life. Nearly 5km beneath the surface, the craft encountered towering chimneys spewing dark water.
The vents lie in the Cayman Trough, a trench lying between Jamaica and the Cayman Islands and formed by the boundary between two tectonic plates. Water released from the vents was recorded at 401“C – some of the hottest on the planet – but it hasn’t stopped animals from living nearby.
In water samples collected by ISIS, the remotely operated vehicle run from British research ship James Cook, were strange, otherworldly animals – many of them new to science. They included anemones, starfish, Cyclops-like shrimp, and a plethora of microbes that harvest energy from the mineral-rich vent exhaust.
“That you can miss something so large shows how the deep ocean always has surprises to offer,” says expedition leader Dr Jon Copley of the University of Southampton.
“If there are more of these vents out there, then they may have more influence on the chemistry of the oceans than people realised,” says Copley. “This provides another missing piece in the jigsaw puzzle of how life disperses and evolves in the deep ocean.”
Many months of lab work examining the biological bounty now lie ahead.