Deep-Sea Hot Spots Harbor Abundant Life

John Roach
for National Geographic News
June 24, 2004

The deep ocean floor is a dark, cold, remote, and seemingly lifeless place that until recently lay largely below the radar of science and exploration. But with advances in technology, scientists are accessing the deep and finding life everywhere they look.

"Typically the deep sea is very sparsely populated and at first glance it may appear as a vast, desolated plain of mud," said Jeffrey Drazen, a marine biologist with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in Moss Landing, California.

Drazen is among the burgeoning class of scientists and explorers who are embracing modern technologies to probe deep beneath the ocean waters that cover 71 percent of the Earth's surface.

"But in every case where we have looked carefully, we have found an amazing diversity of animals that are specially adapted to this challenging environment," he said.

In some places, gases and mineral-enriched water seep from the seafloor and support vibrant communities of tube worms, clams, and other bacteria-feeding creatures. Current-swept nooks and crannies of underwater mountains resemble coral reefs.

Scientists refer to these areas as biological hot spots. They differ from the similarly termed geological hot spots, which are regions of high or continuous volcanic activity due to hot mantle material spewing into the planet's crust.

"Biological hotspots exist because environmental conditions come together at certain locations to make life very prolific," Drazen said.

Lauren Mullineaux is a marine biologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts who studies biological hot spots that form on and around hydrothermal vents. She says ocean explorers do not happen upon hot spots unexpectedly.

"One identifies likely positions and does targeted searches," she said. "Hot spots typically differ in faunal [animal life] composition from other areas in the deep sea, so it is obvious when you have encountered one."

Hot Spots

The most well-known biological hot spots are hydrothermal vents, which spew black, mineral-enriched, scalding water from deep beneath the Earth's crust. In other areas, known as seeps, fluids and gases ooze up through the mud.

Continued on Next Page >>


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