SAn international team of scientists has gotten the first look ever at deep sea communities off the coast of New Zealand. The project, part of a larger effort to survey all the major areas where such communities exist, turned up new species and new problems. The area surveyed has four types of chemosynthetic habitats, including the sorts of hydrothermal vents we’ve become familiar with, and less familiar cold seeps.
At the hydrothermal vents, molten rock provides energy and nutrients to communities of bacteria, worms, crabs and other odd creatures. At the cold seeps, methane or hydrogen sulfide slowly escaping provides energy for a community to thrive on. The vestimentiferan worms shown here were discovered at a cold seep and live off of symbiotic bacteria which convert the gases into useful forms of energy.
This is the first survey of these sorts of communities in the southwestern Pacific – indeed the first cold seep community discovered in the region, and even though the existence of the seeps was not news, this was the first time scientists had seen the life thriving there, including several new species. Video footage from the seeps is available in three installments.
Despite the fact that no human had ever set eyes on these communities, the hand of humanity had already been felt.
According to the team’s press release:
At all of the seep sites, there was evidence of fishing damage in the form of trawl marks, lost fishing gear, and extensive areas of deep-sea coral rubble.
These vents are among the best candidates for the sort of places where life on Earth began, and the idea that they are being polluted before anyone even knows what’s there is truly catastrophic. Understanding those communities gives us insight into the conditions faced not just by the first life on this planet, but conditions at the sites we’re most likely to find life in on other planets.
This point, the connection between environmentalism on earth and space exploration, is a key part of the fascinating Space on Earth: Saving Our World by Seeking Others by Charles S. Cockell. I’ll be doing a full review of that book later, but I urge anyone interested in space exploration or the environment to read that book. You probably won’t agree with everything Dr. Cockell writes, but you rarely see a novel synthesis of intellectual and practical pursuits advanced so thoughtfully.
These deep sea vents, like the frozen deserts of Antarctica, Yellowstone’s hotsprings and handful of other sites are refuges of space on earth, and deserve a level of concern and conservation beyond purely terrestrial thinking. They give us insights into our own planet and our own lives, but also offer deep insights into the possibility of life elsewhere, as well as the challenges that will face us as we seek to expand our lives onto other planets.