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Oceanographers Report Finding Thermal Vents In Mediterranean Sea Floor

May 5, 1989

BOSTON (AP) _ Scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution said Thursday they have found the first known thermal vents in the Mediterranean Sea, a discovery with broad implications in marine biology and geology.

Thermal vents, which are deep cracks where hot minerals well up from the earth’s core. Marine biologists previously have discovered exotic creatures, including foot-long clams and 12-foot tube worms, living near such vents on the Atlantic and Pacific ocean floors.

The Woods Hole team said it expects previously unknown creatures also will be found near the Mediterranean vents discovered about 120 miles from where an camera-equipped robot will explore a sunken Roman ship in 2,100 feet of water off the coast of Italy.

″Each place where thermal vents have been found before, we’ve come across new animals. And each place, they’ve been different,″ said Shelley Lauzon, a spokeswoman for the oceanographic institution on Cape Cod.

The robot, Jason, will transmit live pictures of the Roman trading ship and ocean floor to an estimated 250,000 schoolchildren at 13 museums from British Columbia to Florida.

Robert Ballard, oceanographer in charge of the $7 million Jason project, found the first known undersea vents near the Galapagos Islands in the eastern Pacific in 1976. Since then, researchers have found similar vents in the western Pacific and mid-Atlantic.

Lauzon said all the vents have been surrounded by chemosynthetic bacteria, unusual organisms living in darkness and feeding on chemicals that are toxic to virtually all other forms of life.

The bacteria, in turn, are believed to start the food chain that supports exotic animals found nowhere else, including foot-long clams and mussels in the eastern Pacific, and eyeless shrimp and hairy snails in the western Pacific.

That vents are found in the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Mediterranean suggests that they may be in all the oceans - which implies that the diversity of deep sea life may be far greater than anticipated, Lauzon said.

Some scientists also have said that the discovery of chemosynthetic bacteria and organisms that feed on them makes it more likely that life could exist on distant planets under extreme conditions.

David Gallo, Jason project coordinator and assistant director of the Center for Marine Exploration at Woods Hole, said Thursday’s discovery also was a significant technological advance.

In the past, such explorations required scientists to spend a month or more at sea, he said, viewing the ocean bottom second-hand through the use of videotapes taken from a submersible craft.

On Thursday, satellites enabled scientists at Woods Hole to see the ocean floor as the camera saw it and to summon colleagues who could look and offer their opinions, Gallo said.

″This is remarkable, that I could get an authority here in two or three minutes, who didn’t have to dedicate a whole month at sea to participate in this event,″ he said.

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