Iceland’s Shallow Hydrothermal Vents

Latest update January 10, 2019 Started on December 2, 2018
sea

We are planning an expedition to explore the marine animals living near Iceland’s shallow hydrothermal vents, and the adaptations they may be making to these seemingly hostile yet very productive environments.

December 2, 2018
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Preparation Stage

What is a hydrothermal vent?


Our ocean contains many amazing and distinct habitats, and hydrothermal vents are amongst the most remarkable.

Hydrothermal vents are essentially hot springs, but ones that occur within the ocean and most commonly in the deep sea, typically at depths of around 2500 m and in environments such as mid-ocean ridges. They form wherever there is sufficient heat and porosity to drive the convective flow of seawater. At mid-ocean ridges, stretching of the oceanic crust causes it to crack, allowing seawater to penetrate deep into the Earth's crust. On its journey towards the mantle, this water is heated, picks up dissolved minerals and gases, and is circulated back to the seabed where it erupts as a hydrothermal vent.

The water that emanates from hydrothermal vents can be over 400 °C! But it mixes quite readily with surrounding cooler seawater to create more ambient conditions in which animals can thrive.

Animals are also drawn to hydrothermal vents in the deep sea because they are incredibly productive environments compared to much of the deep ocean. The gases entrained in vent fluid can be used by microbes to fix carbon dioxide, thereby converting it to food in a process similar to photosynthesis but that occurs completely in the dark.

Because of their high productivity, animals (typically marine invertebrates) are often found at vents in incredible abundances. And the animals that thrive there are often different to those found within other deep sea habitats as they have novel adaptations to survive at vents, such as very close-knit associations with microbes that ensures a regular supply of food, and ways to cope with the heat and toxicity of the vents.

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Expedition Background

Deep-sea hydrothermal vents (or marine hot springs) are home to extraordinary, highly-specialised marine animals, adapted in a variety of ways to obtaining their energy from the chemicals emanating from these vents. While the sharp temperature gradients, unstable, and toxic conditions typical of hydrothermal vents can make them challenging habitats for marine life, the ready food supply provides a strong incentive for adapting to vents. Over Earth’s history, a wide variety of animal types have colonised hydrothermal vents, and vent environments therefore appear to be important for driving the development of novel adaptations in animals in the deep sea, but the mechanisms through which vent adaptation happens are largely unknown. Uncovering how animals adapt to vent conditions can give us crucial clues for predicting how marine life may respond to major environmental challenges such as climate change and pollution. The majority of Earth’s hydrothermal vents are fairly difficult to access as they are found at over 2 km water depth, however, off the northern coast of Iceland hydrothermal vents occur at a depth of just 15-70 metres. In this project we are planning fieldwork to explore what animals living near Iceland’s shallow vents, and the adaptations they may have made to the vents using genetic tools.

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