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The Ecosystems that Thrive in Hydrothermal Vents

Some 7,500 feet below the ocean’s surface lies an intriguing and bizarre world unlike any other. Large black volcanoes tower above the ocean floor spouting out poisonous black gas into freezing cold waters and blind crabs roam endlessly in pitch darkness. These intolerable conditions could only mean one thing, hydrothermal vents. These mystical giants of the deep have stumped some of the worlds greatest scientists who have only recently discovered that they may hold the potential key to some of the worlds great scientific mysteries such as how an ecosystem can survive without sunlight and the possible origin of life. Only by studying and understanding hydrothermal vents will we be able to start to unlock some of these puzzles.

In discovering hydrothermal vents, many more questions arose. One of which relates to the excruciating circumstances organisms that inhabit these vent sites survive under. This includes how they are able to withstand poisonous toxins, unbearable temperatures, outstanding pressure, possess the ability to gather food and reproduce effectively. One of the finest examples of these amazing organisms is tubeworm. But before we tackle the many questions surrounding this unusual creature it is best to understand the environment it thrives in.

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History of Hydrothermal Vents

Recently scientists began an in-depth study on the potential existence of hot water vents. While the existence of the mid-ocean ridges was known, some believed a similar type of vent resided that was supported by a hydrothermal system. From as early as 1972 scientists began taking water samples that indicated the presence of these hot water vents (Chu). Using this technique scientists gained strong evidence that one of these vents was sitting along the Galapagos Rift. On an expedition in 1977, a group of scientist fell upon a colossal discovery that gave proof to the outlandish theory (Chu). Using a submersible named Alvin researchers were able to view the seafloor from the ocean’s surface through photographs.

They were in for a tremendous surprise. Not only did Alvin reveal the presence of hydrothermal vents but of a whole ecosystem of life. This essential discovery shocked and dumbfounded scientists all over the world. For the next two years, Alvin would journey back to vent sites to get a better understanding of their existence. In 1979 this amazing sub captured another intriguing image. A 65 foot, chimney shaped vent spewing out black smoke. These vents would become known as black smokers (hence the black smoke), and soon after white smokers were discovered. Since, scientists on a quest to find out more about these marvellous structures have learned amazing things about their location, life span, biology and the strange animals that inhabit them. Still today researchers are figuring out new and interesting things about these vents that will help us answer many of the questions the discovery of these geological structures have presented us with.

Chemistry of Hydrothermal Vents

It is important to know how hydrothermal vents are made, and how they work to get a good idea about the larger ecosystem that lives upon them. On the oceans floor, the earth tectonic plates stretch and move forming small fissures (cracks) on the surface of the ocean floor. When this happens the mineral-rich, freezing cold water seeps into these cracks and comes in contact with the magma that is constantly bubbling towards the centre of our earth. Sulfuric minerals in the water crystallize when exposed to high temperatures, turning themselves directly into volcanic rock (Chu). This will become the foundation of the vent. Eventually, this foundation becomes plumes, a hollow structure that constantly spews hot, mineral-rich water. This natural architecture creates hydrothermal circulation. This is the process in which certain minerals are lost and gained while cycling through the hydrothermal vent (Erway).

When scientists look at hydrothermal circulation they brake it up into three phases; the recharge zone, the high-temperature reaction zone and the up-flow zone. The recharge zone occurs when cold water penetrates the ocean floor. There is a strong “thermodynamic” drive to remove Magnesium from the water that is travelling into the rock, and acid is produced in the process, which then makes other elements and metals from the rock transition into the mineral-packed solution. Then, sulfate is removed by precipitation which reduces it to hydrogen sulfide.

During the high-temperature reaction zone, the water is superheated, and many elements such as pressure, temperature and rock composition determine the fluid’s state. The up-flow zone occurs when the water passing through the vent becomes buoyant and rises out of the plume. When this extraordinarily hot fluid (up to 750*F) meets the freezing cold water (as low as 35*F) the fluid then becomes saturated and gains such minerals as Copper, Iron, Zinc and Sulfur (Gramm). This liquid also carries microbes, tiny bacteria that are originally in the rock, and “catch a ride” with the liquid that is constantly gushing out of the plume (Mr McGuinness). This fluid is now the smoky black gas that flows out of the hydrothermal vent and gives life to its surrounding community.

Hydrothermal Vent Locations

The location of an environment is important in crucial to the types, and varieties of organisms that inhabit it. Hydrothermal vents occur deep underwater, at the oceans floor. There are no depth circumstances in which these vents must lie. Depths of vent sites have been recorded as deep as a mile and as shallow as seven hundred meters (Tyson). After studying the geographic locations of hydrothermal vents, scientists discovered that there are certain areas around the globe in which hydrothermal vents are more active than others. The mid-ocean ridge is the sight at which the most hydrothermal vent activity occurs. In most instances, these vents are found along the crests of this ridge and create linear zones (Chu). An example of this is the East Pacific Rise.

Why Hydrothermal Vents are Important

Hydrothermal vents are not only extremely important because of the resources they may potently provide us with in the future but also the fragile balance on which our world relies on. For example, these vents play an essential role in regulating the temperature and chemical balance of our oceans (Tyson). The bacteria that live in this environment produces enzymes that speed up chemical and biological reactions. Animals that inhabit these areas may contain substances that can be used for medicines. The discovery of hydrothermal vents has presented us with a possible explanation for the origin of life as well as life on other planets. Many of the minerals that develop there could be minded safely and used by humans (Chu). In addition to these, there are many more reasons why vents are and are potently important to humans.

Introduction to Tube Worms

Up until recently, it was thought that nothing could ever live at hydrothermal vent sites. The vent’s hostile conditions present many challenging obstacles for the organisms that inhabit it. Some of these include the objective of gathering food, withstand poisonous toxins, excruciating pressure, unbearable temperatures, and the ability to reproduce. One of the best specimens to represent vent organisms is the Tube Worm.

Basic Biology

The giant tube worm (Lamellibrachia) is a unique marine species that not only withstand but thrives upon some of the harshest conditions that our planet possesses. To better understand the circumstances in which the tube worms live, it is best to get basic background knowledge on these worms biology. This creature has six basic parts: The plume which takes in gasses and minerals vital for survival, the opisthosoma which helps regulate temperature, the tube which serves as a shell for the animal, the trunk which is essentially a waste storage compartment, the trophosome which makes the gasses into food and the vestment that holds the egg and sperm, heart and brain and provides a safe passage for blood (Tyson). In addition, bacteria that are born in the tube worm’s cells are an important part of this organisms digestive system (Mr McGuinness). These vital features work together to keep this unusual creature alive under such rigorous conditions.

Adaptations

The tubeworm has adapted to the hydrothermal vents harsh conditions and evolved into a creature that has no digestion track, no eyes and no mouth (Eleganis). This creature depends solely on the existence of the bacteria that is pushed out of the hydrothermal vents, and with there symbiotic relationship diminishes the purpose for these origins. These bacteria, in groups of thousands, fill the cells of the tubeworm and convert the chemicals that come out of the hydrothermal vents into food for the worm. This chemical-based food making system is called chemosynthesis. This system involves the tubeworm sucking in hydrogen sulfide, oxygen and carbon dioxide through its red plume. The bacteria in the trophosome then use these compounds to make carbohydrates to help nourish this animal (Tyson). While sucking in these minerals, the tubeworm is also sucking in poisonous gasses with it.

The tubeworm has adapted well to the toxic gasses that surround it daily. It has created a system in which it regulates the amount of hydrogen sulfide and other deadly metals in its body. This worm expels these harmful elements into its mucus which is discarded. Eventually, all leftover waste is stored in the worms trunk and left there for the remainder of its life (Tyson). Protection against poisonous gasses is not the only use for the tube, it also helps shield the worm from harsh temperatures.

Tube worms not only have to deal with the excruciatingly cold temperatures that surround their head but the scalding hot temperatures that surround their trunk, which often sits inches from hot magma. This animal has adapted and actually thrives on these temperatures (Its ideal temperature being 100*F) (Pennisi). The tubeworm is protected from cold temperatures by staying securely in its tube, the hard shell that protects the organism. This way, the worm is shielded from the constant movement of freezing cold water around it (Tyson). When in such depth, the temperature is only one of the drastic conditions an organism must deal with, pressure is also a factor.

The tubeworm must deal with pressure so great that if a human reached that level they would die instantly. In fact, it must deal with a constant 3,350 (or more) pounds of pressure (per square inch) on its body continually (Eleganis). This animal has adapted to this great pressure by eliminating any air space in its body (Tyson). The tubeworm has altered its body, and systems in other ways to adjust to the conditions at the hydrothermal vent, one of the most unusual adapted systems is its method of reproducing.

The tubeworm has adapted to an unusual way of reproduction just to survive. In the Testamentum, the organism holds its reproductive spores. The worm releases its egg or sperm during spawning and these combine in water to bring forth offspring (Tyson). In order to colonize other vent sites and keep the species alive, thousands of the tubeworm larvae are carried in plumes created by a mix of temperatures to other vent locations through the current (Romone).

Conclusion

Hydrothermal vents, extraordinary structural giants that erupts from the deep ocean floor are an excellent host to hundreds of bottom-dwelling creatures. It’s violent conditions and odd locations are no match for the spread of life, and there persists a colony of bizarre animals that have adapted to every rigorous situation. Though the existence of life may fade with the cooling lava, nearby structures will spring to life and life will inhabit yet another vent. And who knows what we will find there next

Works Cited

Chu, Jonathan. “What are Deep-Sea Hydrothermal Vents?” 28 Oct 2001. http://www.geneseo.edu/~jc99/whatarethey.htm

Eleganis,C. “Biochemical Adaptations of Marine Invertebrates to Hydrogen Sulfide.” Major Projects, 17 Oct 2001. http://www.200.ufl.edu/julian/research.htm

Erway, Katie. “Hydrothermal Circulation.” Ocean Adventure. 15 Oct 2001. http://www.librairy.thinkquest.org/18829/data/significance.htlm

Gramm, John. “Hydrothermal Environments on the Ocean Floor.” March 1999. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 18 Oct 2001. http://www.resa.net/nasa/ocean_hydrothermal.htm

McGuinness. October 30 2001. Cambridge Ring and Latin High school.

Pennisi, Elizabeth. “Erotic Deep Sea Lifestyle.” January 1997. Science. 17 Oct 2001. http://www.webs.infotrac.galegroup.com

Tyson, Peter. “Into the Abyss.” NOVA. 19 Oct 2001. http://www.pbs.org/cgibin/Q/pl

Romone, Jason. “Colonizing the deep sea.” 9 May 2001. Science News Daily. October 2001. http://www.sciencedaily.com/print/2001/05/010509083730.htm

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