Extraordinary life found around deep-sea gas seeps

Scientists observe for the first time bizarre deep-sea communities around methane seeps off New Zealand coast

An international team led by scientists from the United States and New Zealand have observed, for the first time, the bizarre deep-sea communities living around methane seeps off New Zealand's east coast.

'This is the first time cold seeps have been viewed and sampled in the southwest Pacific, and will greatly contribute to our knowledge of these intriguing ecosystems,' says Dr Amy Baco-Taylor, from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Massachusetts, who co-led the voyage with Dr Ashley Rowden from New Zealand's National Institute of Water & Atmospheric Research (NIWA).

The 21-member expedition led by scientists from WHOI, NIWA, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and the University of Hawaii at Manoa (UH) has spent the last two weeks exploring cold water seeps and other 'chemosynthetic' ecosystems around New Zealand's east coast onboard NIWA's deepwater research vessel Tangaroa.

Cold seeps are areas of the seafloor where methane gas or hydrogen sulphide escapes from large stores deep below. Like hydrothermal vents, cold seeps support unique communities of animals living in symbiosis with microbes that can convert these energy-rich chemicals to living matter (a form of 'chemosynthesis') in the absence of sunlight.

New Zealand is one of the few places in the world where at least four types of chemosynthetic habitats occur in close proximity, allowing scientists to address key questions about the patterns of biological distribution that cannot be addressed elsewhere.

The team visited eight cold seep sites on the continental slope to the east of the North Island, lying at depths of 7501050 m.

'We discovered that one of these sites, "The Builder's Pencil", covers about 180 000 square metres (0.18 square kilometre), making it one of the largest seep sites in the world', says Dr Rowden.

A few cold seep sites were previously known along the New Zealand coast from geological and biogeochemical studies of the continental margin. But this is the first time the biodiversity of the animal communities living at these sites has been observed directly and thoroughly documented, providing the first discovery of cold seep communities in the entire southwest Pacific.

'The nearest known cold seep communities that have been biologically described are off Chile and Japan. The seeps off New Zealand are also remarkable in the sheer extent of their chemosynthetic communities,' says Dr Baco-Taylor.

The team pinpointed potential seep sites using sophisticated sonar to map seafloor topography and substrate and to detect plumes of methane-enriched water. The scientists then lowered a towed video and still camera system over each site to identify seep organisms and the extent of the seafloor they covered.

With the live video feed, the scientists observed 3040 cm long tube worms emerging from beneath limestone boulders and slabs lying at the core of the seeps. Around the rocks were patches of blackened sediment and pockets of white bacterial mats. Most sites also had extensive shell beds consisting of live and dead shells of various types of clams and mussels. These were fringed with stands of another type of deep-sea tube worm that is also gutless and relies on symbiotic bacteria for its nutrition. Corals and, at two of the sites, numerous sponges, were also observed.

'We've collected samples of the animals living around the seeps for formal identification, but the distance to previously studied cold seeps implies that there are several species new to science among these new collections,' says Dr Rowden.

The team has also collected samples of the sediment and water surrounding the seeps for chemical analysis and used sonar to study the geological structures lying beneath them.

The discovery of so many sites suggests that cold seeps are very abundant along New Zealand's eastern continental margin. However, this expedition also revealed the extent to which these communities may face serious threats from human activities. At all of the seep sites, there was evidence of fishing damage in the form of trawl marks, lost fishing gear, and extensive areas of deep-sea coral rubble.

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This voyage was jointly funded by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Office of Ocean Exploration (NOAA OE) and NIWA, with additional support from WHOI, Scripps, and UH.

Media please note:

The expedition will return to Wellington on Monday 20 November, docking at Burnham Wharf at Miramar.

There will be an opportunity to interview the principal scientists, view video footage of the seeps, and film/photograph some of the new specimens collected from 13:00 hours. Still images are also available - for low-res versions, got to: ftp://ftp/niwamedia/seeps_voyage/.

For further information, please contact:

Dr Fiona Proffitt
NIWA Science Communication
Tel: +64 4 386 0546
Mob: +64 21 365 351
f.proffitt@niwa.co.nz

Principal scientists:
Dr Amy Baco-Taylor (Co-Voyage Leader) Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, USA
Dr Ashley Rowden (Co-Voyage Leader) NIWA
Dr Lisa Levin Scripps Institution of Oceanography, USA
Dr Craig Smith University of Hawaii at Manoa, USA

Additional information

  • The voyage visited cold seeps at sites around the Hikurangi Margin off the east coast of the North Island and at the entrance to Cook Strait.

  • Over 100 stations were sampled during the voyage, and over 1300 'lots' of organisms were recorded which represent the collection of thousands of specimens for further study.

  • New Zealand has been identified by the Census of Marine Life (an international initiative to document and explain biodiversity in the world's oceans) as a high priority region to advance our understanding of chemosynthetic ecosystems, which include hydrothermal vents, cold seeps, 'whale falls' (whale carcasses that have sunk to the seafloor), and sunken wood.

  • This expedition is the first step in a long-term programme designed to characterise the communities of animals and microbes living in chemosynthetic habitats in New Zealand waters. It will contribute to the Census of Marine Life, Chemosynthetic Ecosystems (ChESS) programme, which aims to understand global patterns of biodiversity and biogeography in these ecosystems, and to COMARGE, the Census program on continental margins of the world.

  • ChEss (www.noc.soton.ac.uk/chess) is a global study of the distribution, abundance and diversity of species in deep-water hydrothermal vents, cold seeps and other chemosynthetic ecosystems for the Census of Marine Life initiative. Coordinated from the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton (UK) and the Institute of Marine Sciences-CSIC, Barcelona (Spain), ChEss aims to improve our knowledge of the biogeography of chemosynthetic ecosystems and the processes driving them.

  • The expedition team also studied the floor of Kaikoura Canyon, off the east coast of New Zealand's South Island, as a likely site where dead whales and sunken wood collect. Such whale and wood falls also support chemosynthetic communities. The team found that the canyon floor holds an extraordinary mass of giant worms, burrowing sea cucumbers and sea urchins, and enormous tube buildling foraminifera (single-celled organisms).

  • The scientists will place bundles of wood and whale bone in the canyon to study the animals that colonise them. They plan to use submersibles and Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) in future expeditions to further study New Zealand chemosynthetic ecosystems.

  • The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) provided grant funding for this voyage through its Office of Ocean Exploration (OE). NOAA's mission includes exploration for the purpose of discovery and the advancement of knowledge, and OE supports a variety of ocean expeditions and projects (see: www.oceanexplorer.noaa.gov).

  • The National Institute of Water & Atmospheric Research is a New Zealand Crown Research Institute. Its mission is to create and deliver innovative and unrivalled, science-based services and products that enable people and businesses to make best use of the natural environment and its living resources, and derive benefit from them in a sustainable manner. For more information, see: www.niwascience.co.nz.


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