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University of Wyoming Researchers Discover Hydrothermal Vents


Photo courtesy of UW Communications
Photo courtesy of UW Communications

A pair of University of Wyoming researchers have discovered a new hydrothermal vent site containing five previously unknown hydrothermal vents in the Pacific Ocean, according to a UW news release.

Barbara John and her husband, Michael Cheadle, both UW professors of geology and geophysics, recently co-led a research expedition aboard the U.S. Research Vessel Atlantis. With the aid of two small submarines tasked with exploring and sampling the sea floor, the group located the new hydrothermal vents, as well as two others that were last seen 23 years ago, at Pito Seamount in the Pacific Ocean.

The two, along with Professor Jeff Gee from Scripps Institute of Oceanography at the University of California-San Diego, were the chief scientists for the 15-person research team from the U.S. and Canada. The team included four UW students. The expedition was funded by the National Science Foundation.

“The big surprise is the animals that live down there. There’s no light. It’s totally dark,” said Cheadle, in a statement. “The whole animal community (in the vents) depends on chemosynthetic bacteria for food. These bacteria can use hydrogen sulfide (toxic compounds to humans) to produce organic material through a process called chemosynthesis. It’s simply a completely alien ecosystem.”

Cheadle said  until 1977, no one had discovered an undersea hydrothermal vent. Since then, about 300 such vents have been found on mid-ocean ridges around the world. The new vents were found at the summit of the 1-kilometer-high Pito Seamount on the East Pacific Rise.

These vents form above fissures in the Earth’s crust — roughly 2.3 kilometers or 7,500 feet below the sea surface — and emit hot water from hollow chimneys that provide homes for a thriving community of unique creatures.

Cheadle said one of the reasons these vents are important is that, if people want to understand how life evolved, the vents and their biological communities are analogous for how life started.

“Since they (vents) were first discovered in 1977, over 750 new species of animals have been recognized,” he said in a statement.

John says it would be interesting to examine the cross-over between the biological communities in the hydrothermal vents in the Pacific with those in the Atlantic Ocean.

“It’s the cutting edge of biology,” she said. “We could analyze the DNA and find out who is related to whom; look at the evolutionary history of each community; and how they might move between sites and even oceans.”

The vents discovered are referred to as “black smokers” because they emit what looks like black smoke. The vents are essentially pumping out clouds of fine particles of sulfur-bearing minerals, which contain iron, copper, zinc and, to a lesser extent, gold. The vents ranged in height from 70 feet high to small “chimlets” that were only 1 meter tall, John says.

To add a little fun to the discovery, the researchers bestowed names — such as “Jason” and “Medea” – on the vents. The names were in honor of the submersible vehicles used during the expedition. In one case, a vent was named “Scotty’s Castle,” after one of the crew members. In another, a vent was named “The Sniper” because the crust formation resembled a head and a hand holding a rifle, according to the release.

In addition to discovering, imaging and measuring temperatures from the seven hydrothermal vents, the very successful expedition also saw the science team collect important rock samples from the ocean floor (6 kilometers deep below the ocean’s surface) and conduct the first detailed geologic mapping of the gabbroic crust. Sixty percent of the Earth’s surface is the sea floor.

“We did the most detailed mapping of the lower oceanic crust ever done,” Cheadle says.

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