Guardian is taking a closer look at some of the strangest living things from one of the most peculiar places on Earth:
In the first ever expedition to explore and take samples from the “Dragon Vent” in the south-west Indian Ocean, remotely operated submarines spotted yeti crabs, sea cucumbers and snails living around the boiling column of mineral-rich water that spews out of the seafloor.
Dr Jon Copley, a marine biologist at the University of Southampton who led the exploration of the Dragon Vent, said his team found animals that had not been seen in neighbouring parts of the oceans.
Copley’s team took hundreds of samples of 17 different creatures, all of which are now being shipped back to his lab for detailed morphological and genetic examination. “Chances are that there will be several that are new species,” he said. “We won’t know for sure until we get them back into the lab and analyse them.”
Copley’s work builds on a Chinese expedition in 2007 that pinpointed the hydrothermal vents on the southwest Indian ridge for the first time. This chain of undersea volcanoes joins the mid-Atlantic ridge to the central Indian ridge. This part of the volcanic ridge is less volcanically active, so scientists think hydrothermal vents should be fewer and more scattered here. It therefore raises the question of whether life there is significantly different.
Copley said that characterising the life at the world’s hydrothermal vents was a race against time. “Earlier this year, China was granted a licence by the UN International Seabed Authority for exploratory mining at deep-sea vents on the southwest Indian ridge,” he said. “The vent chimneys are very rich in copper, zinc, gold and uranium. But we have no idea what’s actually living there.”