It's easy to imagine that the seafloor miles beneath the icy surface of the Southern Ocean might be a cold, dark, inhospitable place, as devoid of life as the vacuum of space it so closely resembles -- but that couldn't be further from the truth. In a recent expedition near Antartica, researchers from Oxford discovered dozens of remarkable new species thriving in one of the most extreme environments on the planet, alongside deep-sea hydrothermal vents where temperatures can reach over 750F.
For years, scientists have suspected there to be world of life forms thriving near underwater vents at the East Scotia Ridge, but so far the region has yet to be fully explored. Oxford researcher Alex Rogers and his team were among the first to scour the seafloor on a recent trip with a remotely operated vehicle, reports the Guardian. What they found there, at depths where sunlight has never reached, were a variety of creatures never seen before.
"One of the staggering things we did find is that these vents are completely different to those seen anywhere else – the animals existing at these vents are almost all new to science," says the lead-researcher, whose work was recently published in the journal PLoS Biology.
Among the most remarkable species found near the vents were striking pale octopuses, yeti crabs, snails, and barnacles; absent were the tubeworms, vent crabs, mussels and shrimp commonly found near underwater vents in the Pacific.
Rogers added that the vents revealed much about how deep water communities have evolved, and how they are distributed across the world's oceans. "In the space of a single eight-week cruise, we've changed our level of understanding of these systems completely. We've changed our ideas about how vent systems are distributed and the factors that may influence that distribution. What that tells us is that our level of knowledge of the deep sea in general is extremely poor indeed."
Despite the fact that these new species were previously unknown to science, experts say that they and countless others still undiscovered may already be under threat. For as inhospitable and unreachable as these remote ecosystems might seem, they are under increasing threat from human activities -- like from deep-sea fishing and oil exploration moving ever closer to the most hard to reach places in search of petrol.
Discovering the presence of these exotic creatures in places that seem so unlikely for life, however, is the first step towards ensuring their survival.