Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Searching for Life on the Seafloor 
Mid-Cayman Spreading Center could harbor unknown organisms
by Jill McDermott
Jill is a student in the MIT/WHOI Joint Program in Oceanography and a member of the OASES 2012 expedition. This article appears in the most recent issue of Oceanus Magazine, published by WHOI.

Smaller than a fingernail, like bits of downy red feathers, baby tubeworms cling to a vertical wall towering alongside the submersible Alvin 2,500 meters beneath the sea in 2006. Repaved with fresh rock during an eruption at the East Pacific Rise, the walls mark the edge of the caldera of a deep-sea volcano. We three—pilot Pat Hickey, biologist Timothy Shank, and I—are the first human observers of these new colonizers, which are still so young they don’t yet have tubes to protect them from hungry crabs.

Fresh rock on the seafloor is typically a glassy, iridescent black color, but these rocks are coated with a thick layer of white microbes. The key to all this new life is the warm, shimmering, chemical-rich water bathing them. Pressing my face to the 4.5-inch-round window, I have just encountered my first black smoker hydrothermal vent, where hot fluids, laden with chemicals and minerals, spew like smoke from chimney-like rock formations. We have sampled fluids from the vent, collected rocks and animals around it, and seen how the gills of baby tubeworms flutter in the current. Continue reading

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