The origins and age of seep citizens such as the mollusks has been debated for some time by scientists using both fossil and genetic evidence. Kiel and Little decided to examine the fossil record for modern seep mollusks to see how their history compared to that of the overall marine mollusk population.
By sorting 29 mollusk genera into the geological time periods when they first appeared, the researchers found that seep mollusk genera, on average, appeared during the Eocene epoch about 55 to 34 million years ago. By contrast, the average age of first appearances for all marine mollusks occurred in the Oligocene epoch, about 34 to 24 million years ago.
Following the fortunes of seep mollusks through time, Kiel and Little also found little evidence that mass extinction events or periods of low oxygen dealt significant blows to the seep communities. Seeps may have been good shelters during these events because "they were driven by a constant source of geothermal energy," Little said.
The Eocene age calculated by the Science researchers casts some doubt on another mystery involving seep animals: what is their relationship to whale falls? Whale falls, the slowly decaying remains of large whales sunk to the ocean's depths, harbor yet another unique chemical community similar to that in vents and seeps.
Some researchers suggest that whale falls were evolutionary "stepping stones," creating new environments for seep animals to evolve into a plethora of new species. But Kiel and Little's work shows that more than three-quarters of seep mollusk genera had already appeared by the time oceangoing whales would have filled the seas.
Whale falls "are not instrumental in the evolution" of seep mol
Source:American Association for the Advancement of Science