The spotlight is shining once again on the deepest ecosystems in the ocean—Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench (map) and the New Britain Trench near Papua New Guinea. At a presentation today at the American Geophysical Union's conference in San Francisco, attendees got a glimpse into these mysterious ecosystems nearly 7 miles (11 kilometers) down, the former visited by filmmaker and National Geographic explorer-in-residence James Cameron during a historic dive earlier this year.
Watch a video interview with Cameron on exploring deep-sea trenches.
Microbiologist Douglas Bartlett with the University of California, San Diego described crustaceans called amphipods—oceanic cousins to pill bugs—that were collected from the New Britain Trench and grow to enormous sizes five miles (eight kilometers) down. Normally less than an inch (one to two centimeters) long in other deep-sea areas, the amphipods collected on the expedition measured 7 inches (17 centimeters). (Related: "Deep-Sea, Shrimp-like Creatures Survive by Eating Wood.")
Bartlett also noted that sea cucumbers, some of which may be new species, dominated many of the areas the team sampled in the New Britain Trench. The expedition visited this area before the dive to Challenger Deep.
Marine geologist Patricia Fryer with the University of Hawaii described some of the deepest seeps yet discovered. These seeps, where water heated by chemical reactions in the rocks percolates up through the seafloor and into the ocean, could offer hints of how life originated on Earth.
And Emerging Explorer Kevin Hand, and astrobiologist with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, spoke about how life in these stygian ecosystems, powered by chemical reactions, could parallel the evolution of life on other planets.