Earth’s Oddest Ecosystems: Life in an Underwater Methane Vent

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Even though I know the stars above my head are enormous, gaseous entities, I have an alarming tendency to image them as little pinpricks of light shining through the dark sky. It’s hard to imagine, too, the diversity of ecosystems on this planet. Growing up in the flat Midwest, I find myself mildly shocked by mountains—and hills. Despite my best efforts, when I picture a tree, I picture a maple or an oak, and I doodle tulips and robins. It seems nearly impossible to really imagine myself in a muggy rainforest or in the blinding white Antarctica landscape.

Some ecosystems seem so distant, that they seem to be a world set apart from Earth. Your imagination is stunned at the strangeness of the creatures while your reason balks at the improbability of the ecosystem—and all without having to thumb through a Jules Verne novel.

Out of all the habitats on Earth, the ocean’s wildlife communities constitute perhaps some of the most mysterious, intriguing places. Of course, it is also the largest area on earth, which doesn’t seem quite fair to the landmasses that have been working so hard to produce strange creatures and climes. (Australia and platypuses come to mind.) But while one can easily travel to a new continent and experience the shock of realizing that camels do exist outside of zoos, it’s far harder to slip on a deep-sea diving suit and scuba to the depths of the sea.

Scientists have the advantage of technology and remotely operated vehicles (ROV) to explore the ocean’s bizarre neighborhoods, where sea creatures thrive in environments that would be poisonous to humans. Peering into the depths of the Atlantic Ocean, one team of researchers recently found a vibrant community living in really extreme conditions. Right in the heart of this newly discovered ocean city, a giant vent billows methane into the water and into the respiratory systems of the inhabitants.

The methane vent is only the third that’s been spotted on the US Atlantic Coast, but scientists believe it might be the biggest in the world. The site stretches at least a kilometer in length and in the middle, it reaches up to hundreds of meters. For researchers, that measures out several awesome opportunities to study how life adapts to harsh environments.

Methane vents, or cold seeps, exist throughout the dark, sunless waters of the lower ocean layers.  The atmosphere in these seeps would be toxic for humans, but for the organisms living near the seep, it’s a necessity of life. Sea cucumbers and sometimes tube worms or clams flourish in a methane seep. Shrimp dart around, and so do a number of unique fish. Mussels cover the ground in improbable heaps. They have a symbiotic relationship with a type of bacteria that lives in their gills and converts the methane into energy for the mussels. The process is called chemosynthesis, which is a fun word to try to use in casual conversation.

As they pursue deeper understanding about this new ecosystem, scientists have begun collecting sediment samples, live mussels, dead shells, rocks and water samples to gain a holistic idea of the habitat. They’re studying food webs, too, figuring out who’s predator and prey.

The crazy thing is, their research will not only help scientists understand survival of species in general. The methane cold seep community is so unique, it could offer answers about life--or the lack thereof--on other planets.

Image courtesy of Deepwater Canyons 2013 Expedition, NOAA-OER/BOEM/USGS

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