Life around a Cold Seep

This week Ferrebeekeeper has been concentrating on the theme of discovering new life—a search which is very much ongoing even in today’s used-up overpopulated Anthropocene world.  This concept has taken us to the mid levels of the ocean and the mountain jungles of Thailand and Vietnam to encounter species unknown (like this mystery sea slug, the tiny parasitoid wasp, and even a large hoofed mammal). However what is even more shocking is that our world features entire ecosystems rich with life that have only just been discovered.

A photograph of a pool of brine on the bottom of the ocean

A cold seep is an ecosystem on the bottom of the ocean formed around hydrocarbon-rich fluids which seep out of the earth and either “bubble up” or pool at the bottom of the ocean.  The geography of such areas is alien to our perceptions: black pools of asphalt, barite chimneys, and undersea lakes of dense brine (which traps hydrocarbons and sulfites) are surrounded by otherworldly “reefs” of tube worms and benthic mollusks.  The tube worms symbiotically partner with bacteria capable of “feeding” off the hydrocarbons while the mollusks filter feed on the archaeobacteria.   Whole communities of grazers, scavengers, and predators then form around this base.  Such communities are remarkable because they do not rely on photosynthesis as a source of energy and nutrients (much like more famous “black-smoker” ecosystems which are also chemotrophic ecosystems—but which form around hot volcanic vents).  Cold seeps themselves were only discovered in 1983! Now that oceanographers know what to look for, cold seeps are being discovered in locations where we would never have looked for large complicated webs of life.

A Map of the collapsing Larsen Ice Sheet

In 2005, an oceanographic research team studying the seas once covered by the Larsen ice shelf (a melting shelf of ice located off the eastern side of the Antarctic Peninsula) discovered a cold seep community thriving in a glacial trough 850 meters (2,800 feet) beneath the ocean’s surface.  The scientists found great mats of bacteria living on methane.  These bacterial mats were in turn grazed on by strange bivalve mollusks and brittle sea stars.  To quote EOS (a journal of the American Geophysics Union):

These results have implications for the discovery of life in extreme environments, including those found beneath the enormous extent of existing ice shelves and large lakes that lie beneath the Antarctic Ice Sheet. Because of its restricted conditions, the seafloor beneath ice shelves may provide a suitable, widespread habitat for chemotrophic systems; given this, there may be many more such habitats waiting to be discovered beneath existing ice shelves….The seafloor beneath Antarctica’s floatingice shelves covers more than 1.54 million square km [Drewry, 1983], an area of the same order of magnitude as the Amazon basin of Brazil or the Sahara desert.

So science is only just beginning to apprehend the sorts of biomes which are found across huge swaths of Earth.  There are even more remote areas which are wholly unknown—like Lake Vostok, a subglacial lake wholly isolated from the rest of Earth (including the atmosphere) for 15 to 25 million years.  As continental drift and the Antarctic Circumpolar Current froze Antarctica, Lake Vostok was trapped beneath 4,000 m (13,100 ft) of ice, and it has remained so until this year (when an intriguing but sloppy Russian drilling expedition means to pierce the lake).   What scientists discover beneath the other ice dwindling shelves, and what the Russians find beneath the East Antarctic Ice Sheet will have broader implications for how we conceive of life on Earth–and beyond.

A watercolor painting by of chemotrophic life by Karen Jacobsen, an artist who has traveled to the bottom of the ocean via bathysphere to record her impressions!