Irish scientists head into the deep and find a one-eyed shrimp

Mon, Apr 23, 2012, 01:00

IRISH SCIENTISTS uncovered mini volcanoes, discovered a blind one-eyed shrimp and identified valuable natural resources while leading a deep-water expedition to the depths of the mid-Atlantic.

How they did this will be explained later this year in a National Geographic Society television programme called Alien Deep.

There is no need to wait for this to hear the story, however, as the expedition’s leader, Dr Andrew Wheeler of University College Cork, will deliver a free public talk on the subject tomorrow at the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin.

It is a story worth hearing, offering an insight into the alien world that lies in the ocean depths, three kilometres beneath the surface.

“It was an Irish/British expedition to discover a new volcanic vent system in the mid-Atlantic,” said Dr Wheeler.

He led the mission last August aboard the national research vessel RV Celtic Explorer, in a project involving UCC, the Geological Survey of Ireland, NUI Galway, the University of Southampton and the National Oceanography Centre in the UK.

Funding came from the Marine Institute and the National Geographic Society.

Volcanic vents – so-called black smokers – occur at places on Earth where the crust is pulling apart. This is happening along the mid-Atlantic ridge where a split in the seabed runs from Iceland down to the Azores islands and into the south Atlantic.

Amazing things can happen along these splits, and none more amazing that these volcanic vents, Dr Wheeler said.

Seawater seeping into the seabed is heated as it passes through very hot rocks, picking up minerals and metal salts in the process.

It turns into high pressure steam which forces a way back up and blasts out of the seabed at places along the mid-Atlantic ridge.

It carries gold, zinc, copper, iron and other metals and minerals and these collect to form “chimneys” that can be tens of metres high, he said.

These sites tend to support unique marine life: bizarre deep-water species can live where the frigid waters have been heated.

The expedition was on the hunt for these vents, similar to the only ones known along the ridge near Iceland and off the Azores. The team sailed 1,400km from Ireland to reach the ridge.

“We had a suspicion there was a vent because we picked up a weak chemical signal in the water column,” Dr Wheeler said. “We followed the signal down to the seabed.”

They sent down a remotely operated vehicle, Holland 1, to search and discovered a vent system that is the size of a football pitch.

“We got some amazing video and samples from a black smoker,” he said.

And, as has been the case at vent sites around the world, they discovered a self-sustaining ecosystem of unusual species.

“We found a fauna similar to that at the Azores,” he said. “The question is, how did it get there given this new discovery is much deeper and colder?”

They recovered a blind shrimp living near the vents. Normal vision is of no value in the inky depths, but this had a new kind of eye, one evolved to “see” using infrared signals for temperature. “So it is evolving a new way of seeing. It is seeing by heat,” Dr Wheeler said.

Dr Wheeler’s talk, Alien Deep: Volcanoes and One-Eyed Shrimp off the Coast of Ireland, takes place at the Royal Irish Academy in Dawson Street, Dublin, at 6pm tomorrow. Admission is free but you must book. Register online at ria.ieor phone 01-676 2570. The following link connects to a UCC video describing the expedition: bit.ly/HP0JbG