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Hot ecosystems in cold Antarctic oceans

Published: 23 November 2006

Scientists at the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton, are set to discover what lives at unexplored volcanic vents, mud volcanoes and beds of methane ice on the ocean floor around Antarctica.

A national team of researchers, led by Professor Paul Tyler, has been awarded £3.2 million by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) for a programme of exploration using the UK's new ocean-going research ship, RRS James Cook. The team will also use the UK's remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Isis, which can dive to 6500 metres to reveal the inhabitants of the polar ocean depths.

"This is a fabulous opportunity to discover and analyse vents and seeps close to Antarctica," says Professor Tyler, a deep-sea biologist at the University of Southampton's School of Ocean and Earth Science. "These are chemosynthetic habitats where animals live off the chemicals generated by these sites rather than sunlight. The research will also give us a chance to find out how these sites are populated from one to the other. What lives at these ecosystems around Antarctica is unknown. There is only one way to find out - and the first expedition is scheduled for 2009."

Deep-sea chemosynthetic habitats form islands of life on the ocean floor that are linked by the flow of their inhabitants' offspring between them. However, exactly how this web of life works, and how it has worked in the past, is not known. Communities around Antarctica could be related to those known in the Pacific, thanks to deep-water currents that run from west to east through the Drake Passage between Antarctica and South America. Alternatively, chemosynthetic communities around Antarctica could be related to the volcanic vents on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge via 'stepping stones' that existed in the geological past. A third possibility is that life in these habitats around Antarctica could be completely different, having evolved in isolation.

More than 600 new animal species have been described in the 30 years since such habitats were discovered in the Pacific. The International Census of Marine Life's ChEss (Biogeography of Chemosynthetic Ecosystems) programme has identified volcanic vents, mud volcanoes and gas hydrates around Antarctica as a priority for ocean exploration, as these sites may hold the key to understanding the patterns of life in such habitats across the globe.

"Now the UK marine science community has the Isis ROV we are able to examine the deep-sea floor at the metre scale, whereas in the past we have relied on trawls and cores lowered from surface ships," says Tyler. The team will visit and study volcanic vents in the East Scotia Sea, which have never been visited by scientists with deep-diving submersibles. They will compare these with newly-discovered volcanic vents in the Bransfield Strait on the other side of the Antarctic Peninsula. The team will also study mud volcanoes on the ocean floor near the South Sandwich Islands and gas hydrates north of King George Island.

In addition to exploring what lives in these remote corners of the polar ocean, the researchers will examine the links between communities at different sites and investigate how energy flows through the food webs of chemosynthetic ecosystems. The Southampton researchers include Drs Jon Copley, Rachel Mills and Alberto Naveiro Garabato of the University of Southampton's School of Ocean and Earth Science, and Doug Connelly, Darryl Green, Katja Heeschen from the NERC Strategic Research Divisions. They will be working on the project with colleagues at the Universities of Bristol and Newcastle, the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge, and the Institute of Zoology in London.

Related Staff Member

Notes for editors

  1. ChEss is a global study of the distribution, abundance and diversity of species in deep-water hydrothermal vents, cold seeps and other chemosynthetic ecosystems for the Census of Marine Life initiative. Directed from the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton, in the United Kingdom, ChEss aims to improve our knowledge of the biogeography of chemosynthetic ecosystems and the processes driving them.
  2. The National Oceanography Centre, Southampton is a joint partnership between the University of Southampton and the Natural Environment Research Council.
  3. The University of Southampton is one of the country's top institutions for engineering, computer science and medicine, and has a strong enterprise agenda. It is home to a range of world-leading research centres, including the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton, the Institute of Sound and Vibration Research, the Optoelectronics Research Centre, the Centre for the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease, and the Mountbatten Centre for International Studies.
  4. Isis is one of the world's deepest diving remotely operated vehicles (ROV). It can dive to 6500 metres. (Image available)
  5. The RRS James Cook represents a £36 million investment by her owners the Natural Environment Research Council. She is currently undergoing sea trials and begins research work in spring 2007. (Image available)

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