350 Degrees Is Bathwater to These Animals
By Stephen Leahy
PUERTO AYORA, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador , Jul 5 (IPS) – Marine scientists returned to the Galapagos Islands this week to celebrate a discovery that Charles Darwin never dreamt of: bizarre animals that live in total darkness around active deep-sea volcanoes.
Thirty years ago, researchers found the first chimney spewing super-hot water — called a hydrothermal vent — 2,500 metres below the surface on the sea floor, with its own thriving animal community. That life could prosper without sunlight or photosynthesis changed forever the very definition of what constitutes “life” on the Earth. And it opened a new window on the possibilities of life elsewhere in the universe.
After all, if a tiny shrimp can live in total darkness, under tonnes of pressure in a toxic chemical soup boiling away at 350 degrees C, why could not life take hold on some distant planetoid where conditions might not be so harsh?
“We knew right away this was the biggest thing in biology in the past century,” recalls Fred Grassle of Rutgers University in New Jersey, who mounted the first biological expedition in 1977 to the newly discovered hydrothermal vents in the Pacific Ocean about 350 kilometres from the Galapagos Islands.
Grassle is a tall, large man, stooped a little from age and bending to speak to those who are shorter than he. Or perhaps he has been shaped by the many hours crammed into tiny deep sea submersibles like the famous “Alvin”, in which the original discovery was made.
“At the time it was thought that the deep oceans were devoid of life and what little life there might be depended on food falling from above,” Grassle told a small auditorium filled with local school children in Puerto Ayora as part of public celebration of the 30th anniversary of the vent discovery.
The celebration was spearheaded by ChEss (Biogeography of Deep-Water Chemosynthetic Ecosystems), one of the 14 field programmes of the Census of Marine Life, a global collaboration to document the ocean’s life by 2010.
Grassle showed them old slides of skinny, smiling scientists intently working on home-made pieces of equipment so they could explore an environment as exotic and as dangerous as outer space.
While the children are aware the Galapagos Islands are famous for their unique flora and fauna, the deep sea world off the coast of their island home is as fantastic a realm as the moon. And as deep sea scientists like Grassle like to say: “We know more about the surface of the moon than the deep sea.”
For complete story see 350 Degrees Is Bathwater to These Animals