It sounds like a medieval vision of hell: in pitch darkness, amid blazing heat, rise spewing volcanic vents. But there are no demons and devils down here, instead the deep sea hydrothermal vent, located in the very non-hellish Caribbean sea, is home to a new species of pale shrimp. At 3.1 miles below (5 kilometers) the sea's surface, the Beebe Vent Field south of the Cayman islands, is the deepest yet discovered.
In April 2010 scientists used a deep-diving vehicle, HyBIS, and an unmanned robotic submarine, Autosub6000, to explore the vents, which are gushing fluids rich in copper and may be hotter than 450 degrees Celsius.
"These vents may be one of the few places on the planet where we can study reactions between rocks and 'supercritical' fluids at extreme temperatures and pressures," said Doug Connelly with the National Oceanography Center (NOC) in a press release.
Researchers also took samples and photos of a new species of deep sea shrimp, named Rimicaris hybisae, which lacks eyes, instead the shrimp have light-sensing organs on their backs, allowing them to "see" the glow of the vents. White-tentacled anemones were also found.
"Studying the creatures at these vents, and comparing them with species at other vents around the world; will help us to understand how animals disperse and evolve in the deep ocean," said Jon Copley with the University of Southampton.
A new vent field was also discovered on the top slopes of a nearby undersea mountain, Mount Dent. This surprised researchers as undersea vents are not expected on mountainsides.
"Hot and acidic vents have never been seen in an area like this before, and usually we don't even look for vents in places like this," said Connelly. The discovery of the new vents, named Von Damm Vent Field, may mean more deep sea vents could be found throughout the world on other submerged mountains.
The Mount Dent vents sported the same shrimp species as the Beebe Vent Field, but scientists also found possibly new species of a serpentine fish, a snail, and an amphipod.
Just last week researchers announced the discovery of numerous new species at the first exploration of deep sea vents in the Southern Ocean near Antarctica, including a new species of ghostly, hairy crab, known as Yeti crabs.
Although located in one of the most extreme environment on Earth, hydrothermal vents are facing a sudden and new threat: deep sea mining. Deep sea vents do not only harbor extremophiles (life surviving in extreme conditions), but are also rich in minerals deposits. Already Nautilus Minerals of Canada plans to be the first corporation to attempt mining deep sea hydrothermal vents off the coast of New Guinea in 2013, in this case for copper.
"Interest in mining deep-sea hydrothermal vents is likely to increase. Indeed, the International Seabed Authority approved, in July this year, four new applications for exploration of polymetallic sulphides associated with hydrothermal vents. The applicants will restrict activity to inactive sites, which do not play host to typical, living vent communities, but much concern has been expressed about the potential for damage to sites in international waters in the absence of an agreed and effective conservation policy," Steven L. Chown with Stellenbosch University writes in a primer on the new discovery in the Southern Ocean.