London: Scientists have captured remarkable images of life from one of the most inhospitable spots in the ocean, volcanic underwater vents, sometimes called black smokers.
The UK researchers, who have been surveying the area in the South West Indian Ridge in the Indian Ocean, found an array of creatures living in the super-heated waters, including yeti crabs, scaly-foot snails and sea cucumbers.
They believe some of the species may be new to science.
Hydrothermal vents were first discovered in 1977. These fissures in the ocean floor spew out fiercely hot, mineral-rich water, yet somehow, diverse ecosystems are able to thrive in these hostile conditions.
The team, from the University of Southampton, was particularly interested in the vents on the South West Indian Ridge because this range is linked to the Mid Atlantic Ridge and the Central Indian Ridge, where vent life has been well documented.
Using a remote-operated, underwater robot called Kiel 6000, from the Leibniz Institute of Marine Sciences (IFM Geomar), in Germany, the team was able to train their cameras on the vents.
In the hottest habitat around the black smokers, they found snails and shrimp, as well as mussels, sea cucumbers and crabs. They then compared these with the animals found at vents on the neighbouring ridges.
“I was expecting there to be some similarities to what we know from the Atlantic, and some similarities to what we know from the Indian Ocean vents, and that was true, but we also found types of animals here which are not known from either of those neighbouring areas, and that was a big surprise,” said Dr Jon Copley, chief scientist of the Indian Ocean vents project.
“One was a type of yeti crab. There are two currently described species of yeti crab known from the Pacific, and it isn’t like those, but it is the same type of animal, with long, hairy arms.
“Also some sea cucumbers - not known from the Atlantic or Central Indian vents, but known from the Pacific,” he added.
The findings should help researchers to learn more about how life moves from vent to vent: vents are short lived, and without the ability to hop from one system to the next, life there would go extinct.