Scientists discovered a field of deep-sea hot springs after following a trail of crabs like breadcrumbs on the ocean floor

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Scientists discovered a field of deep-sea hot springs after following a trail of crabs like breadcrumbs on the ocean floor
"Leading us like breadcrumbs..." A trail of squat lobsters helped researchers locate previously unknown hydrothermal vents. Schmidt Ocean Institute
  • Scientists on an expedition near the Galápagos Islands followed a trail of crabs on the ocean floor.
  • The crabs led them to a field of hydrothermal vents, or deep-sea hot springs.
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Clusters of white crabs on the ocean floor helped lead scientists to a new discovery off the Galápagos Islands: a field of hydrothermal vents, or deep-sea hot springs, full of life.

The scientists were on an expedition with the nonprofit Schmidt Ocean Institute from August to September in search of as yet unexplored hydrothermal vents. Hydrothermal vents, which were first discovered in 1977 east of the Galápagos, create chemosynthetic ecosystems that support life in places that are mostly barren.

"In the crushing darkness of the deep sea, life thrives on these vents as bacteria facilitate a whole food web by converting chemicals, rather than sunlight, into energy," according to Schmidt Ocean Institute. "Hydrothermal vents threw open the door to new scientific possibilities and have been found and explored across the Ocean for decades."

Scientists discovered a field of deep-sea hot springs after following a trail of crabs like breadcrumbs on the ocean floor
Stunning chimneys and geologic structures formed by hydrothermal venting. Iguanas Vent Field, Galapagos Islands.Schmidt Ocean Institute
Scientists discovered a field of deep-sea hot springs after following a trail of crabs like breadcrumbs on the ocean floor
A vent chimney discovered within a previously unknown hydrothermal vent field near the Galápagos Islands.Schmidt Ocean Institute

The latest expedition was in search of vents that scientists had suspected existed since the early 2000s but were difficult to locate. "It took our team of chemists, geologists, biologists, and a few crabs to find it," Dr. Roxanne Beinart of the University of Rhode Island who co-led the expedition, said in a press release.

The team of scientists was surveying the sea floor with an underwater robot when they finally spotted a Galatheid crab, also known as a squat lobster, a crustacean that is more closely related to hermit crabs than the American lobster.

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The crabs are known to live near hydrothermal vents, so the team followed them, with the density of crabs growing thicker and thicker until they finally arrived at the hydrothermal site.

"It did feel like the squat lobsters were leading us like breadcrumbs, like we were Hansel and Gretel, to the actual vent site," one of the scientists said.

Scientists discovered a field of deep-sea hot springs after following a trail of crabs like breadcrumbs on the ocean floor
A large cluster of riftia tube worms proved the researchers were unquestionably in a new hydrothermal vent field.Schmidt Ocean Institute

The hydrothermal vent field, larger than a professional soccer field, was made up of "five geyser-like chimneys and three hot springs, like those you might see in Yellowstone," the press release said. The hottest water temperature recorded at the site was 550 degrees Fahrenheit.

Ricardo Visaira Coronel of the Galápagos National Park and Dennisse Maldonado of INOCAR, who are both Ecuadorian and were on the ship, named the vent field "Sendero del Cangrejo," or "Trail of the Crabs."

The scientists found a large cluster of giant tube worms and collected other specimens, some of which may be entirely new species, the press release said.

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Stuart Banks, senior marine scientist at the Charles Darwin Foundation, said a better understanding of deep-sea hydrothermal communities is "hugely important" for the management of the Earth's oceans.

"Such a discovery for the Galapagos and Eastern Tropical Pacific takes us important steps closer to ensuring hidden deep-water biodiversity is recognized, appreciated, and built into ongoing conservation efforts," he added.

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