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Hot meets cold at new deep-sea ecosystem: 'Hydrothermal seep'

Decades ago, marine scientists made a startling discovery in the deep sea. They found environments known as hydrothermal vents, where hot water surges from the seafloor and life thrives without sunlight.

Then they found equally unique, sunless habitats in cold areas where methane rises from seeps on the ocean bottom.

Could vents and seeps co-exist in the deep, happily living side-by-side?

No one thought so. Until now.

That's exactly what researchers uncovered during a submersible expedition off Costa Rica. They've coined a new term to describe the ecosystem: a hydrothermal seep.

A description of the scientists' findings, including a large number of deep-sea species that previously had not been described, is published in a paper by Lisa Levin of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif., and colleagues.

The paper appears in the March 7, 2012, issue of the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

Levin and the team were surprised to find a hybrid site in an area where only cold seeps had been reported.

"The discovery shows that we still have much to learn about hydrothermal vents and methane seeps and about the vast depths of the oceans," said David Garrison, director of the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Biological Oceanography Program, which funded the research.

"We need to re-think the boundary," he said, "of where a vent begins or a seep ends."

The most interesting aspects of the site, said Levin, "are the presence of vent-like and seep-like features together, a vast cover of tubeworms across large areas, and a wealth of new species."

Called Jaco Scar, the site lies at a tectonic plate margin off Costa Rica. There an underwater mountain, or seamount, is moving under the tectonic plate.

Jaco Scar's animals range from those that inhabit hot vents or cold seeps, to species that exist in both settings.'/>"/>

Contact: Cheryl Dybas
National Science Foundation

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