Life was once thought to be completely dependent upon our closest star, the sun. Even in the deep, dark depths of the ocean where no light penetrates, organisms ultimately rely on the productivity from the sun-bright shallows above for their food. In 1977, scientists discovered that this belief was wrong. At the bottom of the Pacific ocean, near the Galapagos Islands, a team tasked with photographing the Galapagos rift found something no one thought was possible. An abundance of life. An area that was thought to be akin to a desert now resembled a rainforest. How was this possible?
Chemosynthesis. When organisms use energy from chemical reactions to create food. These chemical reactions are spewing from the ocean floor—from hydrothermal vents.A hydrothermal vent is a fissure, or a crack in the planet’s surface. The vents are created when seawater meets magma. As the cold seawater is heated by magma a series of chemical processes take place. The water becomes acidic and metals begin to leach from rocks, as this new fluid rises and reaches the ocean—cold and oxygen laden—once more, chemical reactions quickly begin to occur and create compounds like hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide. These compounds are absorbed by bacteria who then use them to chemosynthesize. These bacteria are the base of the food chain for the hydrothermal vent ecosystem. Mussels, clams, giant tube worms, and crabs flourish here.
The latest data from NOAA explains that there are potentially 550 hydrothermal vent sites around the world. Only 5% of the ocean’s floor has been mapped—who know what else we might find down there.
Our oceans are vast and getting across them is daunting enough but exploring underneath them is even more challenging. Although our oceans cover 71% of our planet, we have only explored about 5% of them. The deep sea accounts for 95% of our oceans, yet the majority of sea life cannot live there because it has four characteristics that make life in the deep sea extremely formidable.
The first challenge of deep sea life is dealing with the pressure. The pressure of the deep sea may range between 3000 to 9000 pounds per square inch. That’s enough to crush almost all living things to only a fraction of their normal size should they ever happen to venture into the deep sea. To deal with this extreme pressure, the animals that inhabit the deep sea have different body structures than their cousins near the surface. Many of the fish are small with soft bodies and muscles. Many of the creatures of the deep sea like squid don’t have any bones at all.
The next challenge for creatures of the deep sea is the temperature. Most of the deep sea has a temperature between 35 and 39 degrees Fahrenheit, which is far too cold for most animals. Not all deep sea animals live in the cold water. Some animals in the deepest parts of our ocean live inhabit some of the hottest environments on the planet. These are the creatures of hydrothermal vents, areas where super heated water and gas comes the area between two tectonic plates. The temperatures around these unique ecosystems can sometimes be over 700 degrees Fahrenheit. Animals that live near these vents cant venture too far away or they will risk freezing to death.
If you were to drop past 3000 feet down in the ocean you would find it very hard to see. At that depth all of the light from the sun has been absorbed and everything from this point below lives in almost complete darkness. The darkness and loneliness are last two characteristics and potentially the greatest challenges of living in the deep sea. The darkness makes finding any other creature whether it is food or friend nearly impossible. Deep sea creatures have adapted to deal with the darkness though. Many animals have the ability to produce their own light in the form of bioluminescence. This ability to create their own light attracts unassuming prey items that may be looking for a meal as well. The anglerfish is one of the best animals at this with here rod like light that bring the food right in front of her mouth. When animals in the deep sea are lucky enough to find a meal they need to make sure that they can eat it so many of the animals of the deep sea have large mouths and stomachs that can expand to hold prey nearly as large as themselves. As hard as it is to find a meal, finding another animal of the same Species can sometimes be even more challenging. Some deep sea creatures go their entire lives without ever finding a mate.
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