Clusters of white crabs on the ocean floor helped lead scientists to a new discovery off the Galapagos Islands: a field of hydrothermal vents, or deep-sea hot springs, full of life.
The researchers were part of an expedition led by the non-profit Schmidt Ocean Institute in August and September to search for hydrothermal vents that had not yet been explored. Hydrothermal vents, which were first discovered in 1977 east of the Galapagos, create chemosynthetic ecosystems that support life in places that are mostly barren.
“In the crushing darkness of the deep sea, life thrives on these vents as bacteria facilitate a whole food web by converting chemicals, rather than sunlight, into energy,” according to Schmidt Ocean Institute. “Hydrothermal vents threw open the door to new scientific possibilities and have been found and explored across the Ocean for decades.”
The latest expedition was in search of vents that scientists had suspected existed since the early 2000s but were difficult to locate. “It took our team of chemists, geologists, biologists, and a few crabs to find it,” Dr. Roxanne Beinart of the University of Rhode Island who co-led the expedition, said in a press release.
The scientists were surveying the ocean floor using an underwater robot, when they spotted the Galatheid lobster. This crustacean is closer to the hermit crab than it is the American lobster.
Since the crabs were known to be found near hydrothermal sites, the team decided to follow them. As the crabs grew in number, they eventually reached the hydrothermal area.
“It did feel like the squat lobsters were leading us like breadcrumbs, like we were Hansel and Gretel, to the actual vent site,” one of the scientists said.
The hydrothermal vent field, larger than a professional soccer field, was made up of “five geyser-like chimneys and three hot springs, like those you might see in Yellowstone,” the press release said. The hottest water temperature recorded at the site was 550 degrees Fahrenheit.
Ricardo Visaira Coronel of the Galapagos National Park and Dennisse Maldonado of INOCAR, who are both Ecuadorian and were on the ship, named the vent field “Sendero del Cangrejo,” or “Trail of the Crabs.”
The scientists found a large cluster of giant tube worms and collected other specimens, some of which may be entirely new species, the press release said.
Stuart Banks, senior marine scientist at the Charles Darwin Foundation, said a better understanding of deep-sea hydrothermal communities is “hugely important” for the management of the Earth’s oceans.
“This discovery in the Galapagos, Eastern Tropical Pacific, is a major step towards ensuring that deep-water biodiversity, which has been hidden, can be appreciated and integrated into conservation efforts.