Research Paper: Sea Floor Hydrothermal Vents and the Sea Life

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Hydrothermal Vents

Life in the ocean is hard enough. Yet, life a mile down is even harder. Hydrothermal vents are open fishers that stream hot water, minerals, and nutrients from the earth's core. These open cracks on the bottom of the ocean provide an oasis deep beneath the surface of the ocean. Bacteria feed on the minerals, and then serve as food for other species. There is thus a wide variety of species that live within these unique and extreme biological communities. Observing such diverse life forms have also helped illustrate how all life may have started millions of years ago.

Hydrothermal vents are an interesting feature rested on an otherwise barren deep sea landscape. They are essentially holes within the bottom of the ocean that opens up the hot, inner crust and core material to the deep sea water that is far below the surface of the ocean, sometimes reaching thousands of feet and several miles below the water's surface (Lemonick & Dorfman, 2010). These openings are known as fissures, and are tears within the top crust material. From these cracks, intensely hot water comes streaming from the inner core of the earth. These underwater vents resemble many hot springs and geysers found above water in places in that are also highly geologically active or near areas with strong volcanic activity.

The water streaming out of these cracks in the bottom of the ocean floor consist mainly of sea water, but also of rich nutrients and minerals that come from the earth's inner core. Molten hot magma can be as hot as 750 degrees Fahrenheit (Lemonick & Dorfman, 2002). Most of the seawater emanating from the jets is actually being recycled back into the ocean after water was first brought into to a hydrothermal system. Water around active volcanic regions seeps into porous rocks and sediments, volcanic strata, and massive faults along the ocean floor. This seawater is then spit back out into the deep water of the ocean after being heated by magma that it rising up from the earth's inner core. In the deepest depths of the ocean where most of these vents are found, the water is extremely cold and had intense hydrostatic pressure (Lemonick & Dorfman, 2002). Thus, these hydrothermal vents provide necessary heat and nutrients so that life forms can survive in the abyss of the deepest oceans.

There are a number of different types of hydrothermal vents that are known within the scientific discourse today. One of the most common is what is known as black smokers (Ericsson, 2008). These form chimney like structures that are cylindrical tubes that rise above the deep ocean floor. These cones are made of the mineral and nutrient build up from the rich water that is carrying material from deep within the earth's core. Sometimes, these cones are extremely high, and are a stunning picture to see against the barren wasteland of the ocean floor around them. From these cylindrical smoke stacks comes a dark or black water material being emitted. The dark color is caused by some of the minerals precipitate upon contact with the frigid temperatures of the deep ocean floor, averaging at about 2 degrees Celsius (Ericsson, 2008). Most of these black smokers contain high levels of sulfur and other sulfide minerals. Over extremely long periods of time, a black smoker can grow in size and eventually become a sulfide ore deposit (Ericsson, 2008). They are often found on the sediment of the seabed, and are not single entities on their own, but often are found in large fields full of many hydrothermal vents of the same type. Additionally, there are other types of hydrothermal vents, called white smokers. These differ from black smokers most notably in the color of the water they emit, being more whitish in color compared to the dark liquids found in the case of black smokers. The mineral and nutrient materials in these waters are much different than the sulfide-rich black smokers. White smokers most often contain silicon, calcium, and barium. Also, white smokers are often at much lower temperatures than the black smokers. This allows for more acetyl thioesters to thrive, which helps generate the capacity for much more life in the ocean depths.

Hydrothermal vents are found deep within the ocean. They are at the very bottom of the ocean floor, and often in some of deepest parts of the ocean waters. Most are found at extremely deep levels, sometimes around a mile deep. Mid-ocean ridges are where most hydrothermal vents are located around the world. Thus, there are often a number of hydrothermal vents found neat the East Pacific Rise and the Mid-Atlantic ridge (Spotts, 2010). These ridges are located where major tectonic plates are in constant contact and tension with one another, allowing for the cracks to break open and allow the hot water and rich nutrients to flow out into the ocean floor. Vents are most often found around volcanic areas, or where tectonic plates meet with one another. It is in these areas where the earth's crust is often most vulnerable, and therefore the fishers can erupt more easily from the bottom of the ocean floor. Thus, hydrothermal vents are found in both convergent and divergent boundaries, where the plates are either coming together or moving apart. Such deep water vents were also recently found to exist in ultra-slow spreading ridges, like the Cayman Trough in the Caribbean (Spotts, 2010). Such ridges were previously though to be tool cool to produce such vets, but recent evidence has shown otherwise. The plates encompass both the crust and the upper most portions of the mantle, and are known as lithospheric plates. These areas are also a hotbed of volcanic activity, and the vents help show the enormous geological activity that takes place in these regions.

These vents are an oasis in the otherwise barren deep ocean floor. There is an incredibly varied biodiversity around these deep water vents (Spotts, 2010). Most of the sea bed around the areas is bare, based on the extreme conditions and sheer depths. However, the hydrothermal vents provide the ability for life to thrive even in the deepest depths of the ocean. The life forms living along side hydrothermal vents are completely independent of the sun, which otherwise governs over life on earth. Yet, this also means that all the diversity of these biological communities is highly dependent on the existence of the vent. However, some recent research has shown that some species can adapt to life after the vent has closed (USA Today Magazine, 2012). If an earthquake or other tectonic activity closes the vent, they have no other means of survival and will promptly die off. The water emanating out of the cracks is filled with rich minerals, nutrients, and bacteria. This, along with the warmth and heat the jet emits, provides the right environment for a wide plethora of different deep water species in complex, and very unique, biological communities (Lemonick & Dorfman, 2002). These large, and incredibly diverse, biological communities fed off of the chemosynthetic bacteria, which is supported by the rich minerals coming from within the vents. Such bacteria are known to thrive off hydrogen sulfide through chemosynthesis. In this process, the sulfur, methane, and intense heat are combined to generate energy (Lemonick & Dorfman, 2002). Essentially, the bacteria oxidize hydrogen sulfide in order to produce the energy they need to survive and grow. These bacteria and extremophiles can survive intense conditions (Lemonick & Dorfman, 2012). Chemosynthetic archaea are often at the very bottom of the food chains in the biological communities that depend so heavily on the warmth and nutrients provided by hydrothermal vents. The bacteria coagulate into thick layers of organic material at the base of the vent. Additionally, there are different types of bacteria found in some vents that actually use photosynthesis, despite the lack of sunlight. Chlorobiaceae is a bacterium that can perform photosynthesis using only the faint light provided by the tinted water being emitted out of the vent.

Along the vent is a wide variety of fauna. Gastropods make up some of the more common fauna found near these vents. There are a wide variety of gastropods, and there have been over 100 species already found. One species, Crysomallon squamiferum, is an example of a gastropod often found there. These unique organisms then offer sustenance to other, larger species that also thrive in the bottom depths of the ocean. These species are drawn to the rich bacteria that form after the vent opens up from beneath the earth. Giant tube worms, clams, shrimp, and another wide number of species all feed off the chemosynthetic archaea. Some of the smaller organisms that feed of the chemosynthetic bacteria include amphipods and copepods. These amphipods and copepods then help to support the feeding of larger organisms. Tube worms are a major element found within these unique biological communities. They are often enormous, and can reach several feet long. There are two primary… [END OF PREVIEW]

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