THEY are creatures from the abyss described as the closest things to extra-terrestrial life which can be found on this planet.
Irish scientists who have charted a previously unknown system of deep sea vents in the middle of the Atlantic revealed stunning images yesterday of potential new species they found living near underwater volcanoes some three kilometres below the ocean surface almost 1,500 kilometres off the west coast.
Vivid orange shrimp-like animals which see in infrared through a third eye, and scaly alien-like snails and worms are among many new lifeforms which thrive in these deep dark toxic depths.
“It is too early to say whether some of them are new species or not but we are confident that at least three will prove to be,” VENTuRE mission leader Dr Andy Wheeler, from University College Cork (UCC) said.
How they survive in these extreme conditions could have huge potential for medical purposes, and how the vents form could also help the country’s mining industry, he said.
His team, which included scientists from the National Oceanographic Centre (NOC) in Southampton, the University of Southampton, NUI Galway, and the Geographical Survey of Ireland, returned to the port of Cork yesterday after their 23-day mission on board the State’s marine research vessel, Celtic Explorer.
The mission was one of the most technically challenging ever undertaken by the ship.
In a briefing by the scientific team onboard the vessel yesterday, Dr Wheeler said they spent several days surveying the mid-Atlantic ridge, where the European tectonic plate and the American plate spread, and discovered within days the new vent field on the European side of the ridge.
They deployed the vessel’s remotely operated submarine, the Holland 1, down to explore.
Operating at the very limits of its mechanical ability, it descended 3,000 metres along a seemingly bottomless underwater cliff into the abyss.
“We never reached the bottom but rising up from below were these chimneys of metal sulphides belching black plumes of mineral-rich superheated water,” Dr Wheeler said.
“Often the search for vents takes much longer and our success is testament to the hard work and skill of everyone on board.”
NOC’s Dr Bram Murton hailed it as a major discovery.
“Our discovery is the first deep-sea vent field known on the mid-Atlantic Ridge north of the Azores,” he said.
“Although people have been crossing this ocean for centuries, we are the first to reach this spot beneath the waves and witness this natural wonder.
“The sense of awe at what we are seeing does not fade, and now we are working hard to understand what our discovery tells us about how are planet works.”
The newly charted vent system has been named the Moytirra Vent Field — after a battlefield in Irish mythology.
The largest chimney found is more than 10 metres high and has been named Balor after a legendary giant.
Patrick Collins, from NUI Galway’s Ryan Institute, who led Ireland’s marine biological team investigating the unique ecosystem, said: “Everyone on board is proud of this Irish discovery. In comparison with other vent fields, Moytirra contains some monstrous chimneys and is in an unusual setting at the bottom of a cliff — a real beauty.”
He is now working with Jon Copley of the University of Southampton to catalogue and characterise the species found at the vents.
Minister for Agriculture and the Marine, Simon Coveney hailed the discovery and praised all involved in the expedition.
“It is a major statement by Ireland that we are serious about marine research,” he said.
Chief executive of the Marine Institute, Dr Peter Heffernan, said the mission clearly demonstrates Ireland’s capacity to undertake world-class research, as well as the benefits of international cooperation.
“This targeted use of research funding by our organisation, which has enabled senior Irish scientists to lead this survey in partnership with international colleagues, has resulted in scientific discoveries of global interest which will enhance Ireland’s growing reputation in deep-sea exploration.”
The expedition team also included Dr Boris Dorschel, a marine geologist with UCC, Professor John Benzie, a marine geneticist from UCC, Dr Darryl Green, a marine geochemist with the NOC, Dr Jens Carlsson, a marine geneticist from UCC, Patrick Collins, a marine biologist with NUI Galway, Mark Coughlan and Aaron Lim, marine geologists from UCC, Alice Antoniacomi, a marine geneticist with UCC, Maria Judge, a marine geologist with the Geological Survey of Ireland, Verity Nye, a marine biologist with the University of Southampton, and Kirsty Morris, a marine biologist with NOC.
The mission had two aims — the first was to study the first hydrothermal vent field detected along the mid-Atlantic ridge between the Azores and Iceland — which proved a huge success.
But on their return voyage to Ireland, the team also studied the significant westward extension of a known field of deepwater coldwater corals.
This area of active coral growth in the Porcupine Seabight has been declared a Special Area of Conservation because its unique ecosystem supports a wide variety of marine life.
The expedition deployed the Holland 1 to estimate the abundance and density of live coral.
The mission was recorded by a film crew from National Geographic for its Oceanus television series, to be broadcast in 2012.
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