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At deepest hydrothermal vent yet found, an 'awe-inspiring' view

Scientists have found a hydrothermal vent community three miles beneath the sea near the Cayman Islands. Other vents have led to the discovery of new and exotic creatures.

By Staff writer / April 13, 2010

A cloud of smoky water billows from the top of a hydrothermal vent more than three miles beneath the surface of the Caribbean. The vent, located in the Cayman Trough, is the deepest ever discovered.

National Oceanography Centre/AP

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Scientists taking part in a global Census of Marine Life have discovered off the Cayman Islands the deepest sea-floor hydrothermal vent community yet known.

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Researchers have not yet formally published the results of their expedition. But elsewhere, "black smokers" – towering, two-story-tall vents spewing mineral-rich, superheated water into the inky darkness around them – are oases of life for organisms ranging from bacteria to crabs and giant tube worms.

The sight of these vents three miles beneath the surface, as seen through videos from an unmanned submersible dubbed HyBIS, "was awe-inspiring," according to a statement from Jon Copley, a University of Southampton marine scientist and one of the expedition's leaders.

IN PICTURES: Hydrothermal vents

While new species crop up with regularity from tropical rain forests, those discoveries are often incremental. "Invariably, it's going to be an insect, and chances are it's going to be a beetle," says Paul Tyler, another of the leaders of the expedition, during a phone conversation from his cabin aboard the British research vessel RSS James Cook.

By contrast, "in the deep sea, chances are you're going to find something completely new," he says, noting that discoveries in the deep sea during the past century have led scientists to create three new phyla – biological categories for never-before-seen body types.

Other discoveries have pushed the bounds of the exotic: for example, the "yeti crab" discovered in 2005 living at hydrothermal vents 900 miles off Easter Island. National Geographic exclaimed that the feathery limbed crab "is so extraordinary that a new taxonomic family had to be invented for it."

"The deep sea is likely to be the reservoir of highest biodiversity on the planet," says Dr. Tyler

A biological surprise

The newly found black smokers rise from the Cayman Trough. It's an undersea rift valley that runs between Jamaica and the Cayman Islands and forms part of the boundary between the Caribbean and North American Plates.

The location falls into a relatively new category of undersea features of Earth's crust – an ultra-slow spreading center – that only a decade ago seemed of little biological interest.

Ultra-slow spreading ridges replenish the crust with new material, as do their more energetic counterparts. But the new crust is generally much cooler than the crust welling up from other, faster-paced spreading centers such as the East Pacific Rise or the mid-Atlantic Ridge.

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