Biogeography and ecology of the first known deep-sea hydrothermal vent site on the ultraslow-spreading Southwest Indian Ridge

Lead Research Organisation: University of Southampton
Department Name: School of Ocean and Earth Science

Abstract

This proposal is for a short extension to a NERC research cruise to obtain a missing piece of a global jigsaw puzzle of deep-sea life, thereby advancing our understanding of the patterns of biodiversity in the Earth's largest ecosystem. The proposal is to visit a site on the Southwest Indian Ridge (SWIR) where deep-sea vents were recently observed for the first time, but not sampled, by a Chinese research cruise. In 2011/12, a NERC cruise will be visiting undersea mountains in the Indian Ocean just 110 km away with Isis, the UK's remotely-operated vehicle (ROV). This proposal is therefore to visit the nearby vent site with the ship, and undertake the first ever ROV dives at a deep-sea vent on this mid-ocean ridge. Deep-sea vents support lush colonies of marine life, ultimately nourished by chemicals gushing from the seafloor. Investigations of vents over the past three decades have found hundreds of new animal species, revolutionised ideas about how ecosystems can be supplied with energy, and even provided clues to the origins of life. But we have yet to understand what controls the global distribution of species in these island-like extreme environments on the ocean floor. Thirty years of investigations have so far revealed six provinces of animal life at vents, where different species are found at vents in different regions. These provinces are akin to terrestrial continents - e.g. lions living in Africa and tigers in India - but unlike such patterns of life on land, the origin and maintenance of these provinces are not yet understood. Deep-sea vents are dotted along the mid-ocean ridge, a 65000 km chain of undersea volcanoes. Some sections of the mid-ocean ridge are more volcanically active than others. The SWIR is an ultraslow-spreading ridge, where there is less volcanic activity and the plates of the Earth's crust are moving apart more slowly than in other regions. The spacing of deep-sea vents along the mid-ocean ridge decreases with its volcanic activity. At fast-spreading ridges, such as in the Eastern Pacific, vents are less than tens of kilometres apart. On less active slow-spreading ridges, such as the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, vents are hundreds of kilometres apart. This difference may influence which species are found at vents, as the larvae of some species are more capable than others of dispersing long distances between vents. But this idea has yet to be thoroughly tested and the species that live on ultraslow-spreading ridges are largely unknown, despite such ridges forming proportionally the greatest length of the global mid-ocean ridge system. The international Census of Marine Life has therefore identified the SWIR as a priority target to understand what shapes global patterns of life at deep-sea vents. As much of what we know about the dispersal of deep-sea species in general comes from studying these systems, this will advance our understanding of patterns of biodiversity in the deep ocean. Undertaking the first ROV dives at a deep-sea vent on this ultraslow-spreading ridge will determine whether its fauna differ from other ridges. Seafloor images from the Chinese expedition suggest that some species may be similar to those recently discovered at vents in the Southern Ocean by a NERC Consortium. The samples and data collected by the ROV will therefore test the hypothesis that there is a new province of vent biology in the southern hemisphere. The project will also collect samples of novel organisms for the marine biotechnology sector, and share its discoveries with the public through outreach activities. Given the costs of mounting a research cruise in the Indian Ocean, this unique opportunity to extend an existing cruise to visit the first-known deep-sea vent on the SWIR represents exceptional value for NERC science. By answering a key question in deep-sea ecology, this proposal also addresses NERC's goal of delivering world-class research at the frontiers of knowledge.

Publications

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Chen C (2015) A new genus of large hydrothermal vent-endemic gastropod (Neomphalina: Peltospiridae) in Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society

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Chen C (2015) How the mollusc got its scales: convergent evolution of the molluscan scleritome in Biological Journal of the Linnean Society

 
Description This NERC Small Grant funded three days of shiptime to undertake the first remotely operated vehicle (ROV) survey of a hydrothermal vent field on the ultraslow-spreading SW Indian Ridge. The samples and data collected during that fieldwork enable the characterisation of the ecological processes (e.g. succession) and biogeographical context of vent fauna on this mid-ocean ridge for the first time. Research papers from the project are currently in submission, but the initial results have already informed a case presented by the UK to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity for the creation of an Ecologically or Biologically Sensitive Area (EBSA) in the SW Indian Ocean. The techniques used in the survey have also been incorporated in advice prepared by an international scientific forum for the UN International Seabed Authority, to assist in defining guidelines for environmental surveys of seafloor massive sulfide deposits targeted for mining in international waters.
Exploitation Route Defining an area requiring environmental protection in international waters, and assisting in definition of guidelines for contractors undertaking exploration phase activities at seafloor massive sulfide deposits in international waters, under licence from the UN International Seabed Authority. Via submission to UN CBD and guidelines prepared by VentBase (see above and specific output items).



Additional public engagement benefits have been delivered through a programme of extensive activities summarised as part of NE/F017774/1.
Sectors Education,Environment,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections,Other

URL http://www.thesearethevoyages.net/jc67
 
Description Our findings formed the evidence basis for a submission by the UK government under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity for the establishment of an Ecologically or Biologically Sensitive Area (EBSA) around the hydrothermal vent field that we visited and sampled for the first time with a human-directed deep-sea vehicle as part of this grant. The UK application for EBSA status for the site was not confirmed at a UN CBD meeting for the Indian Ocean region in 2012, as it was vetoed by the delegation from China (as China has been awarded a mineral exploration licence for the same area of international deep-sea floor by the UN International Seabed Authority). But the application therefore highlighted the lacunae between the principles of the UN CBD and the UN ISA, which are now being resolved. This grant has therefore contributed to the development of international policy for environmental protection of the 45% of our planet's surface represented by deep-sea floor in international waters. In addition, our findings have underpinned a programme of public engagement with research, which has combined extensive work with traditional media (e.g. BBC News, and broadsheet newspapers such as The Times and The Guardian), direct "face-to-face" engagement with presentation and discussion of research project findings at talks and public events for audiences from school groups to retirees/lifelong learners, and a programme of online engagement. We have also contributed to the development of displays featuring our findings for museums. Together, these activities have delivered the societal impacts of "generating inspiration and curiosity about science", "raising awareness of research findings, their context, and the research process", and "providing cultural enrichment by supporting lifelong learning".
First Year Of Impact 2011
Sector Creative Economy,Education,Environment,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections,Other
Impact Types Cultural

 
Description Advice to UN ISA and contractors to define guidelines for environmental survey of seafloor massive sulfide deposits in international waters
Geographic Reach Multiple continents/international 
Policy Influence Type Implementation circular/rapid advice/letter to e.g. Ministry of Health
Impact Research insights from this project contributed to discussion paper involving the UN International Seabed Authority and contractors developing operations in deep-sea mining to inform future definition of best practices for environmental impact assessments at deep-sea hydrothermal vents.
URL http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308597X13000705
 
Description Submission by UK to UN CBD to establish an EBSA in the High Seas area of the SW Indian Ocean
Geographic Reach Europe 
Policy Influence Type Citation in other policy documents
 
Description International media coverage of Scientific Reports paper 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact Findings published in our Scientific Reports paper (December 2016) were reported by >39 media outets worldwide (as tracked by Altmetric.com), including BBC, ITV, Daily Mail, Daily Express, International Business Times,.LiveScience.com
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Talk at Bluedot Festival, Jul 2016 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Talk about recent NERC deep-sea vent projects (x3) at Bluedot music/science festival, Joddrell Bank, July 2016
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2016/jul/10/bluedot-festival-frontier-jodrell-bank-jean-michel-j...
 
Description Talk to UK U3A at Royal Institution, Oct 2016 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Talk to UK University of the Third Age audience at Royal Institution, London, October 2016
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://www.rigb.org/whats-on/events-2016/october/public-u3a-at-the-ri-language-and-oceans
 
Description Use of processed seafloor images in BBC News online feature 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact Use of our "mosaic" images of hydrothermal vent chimneys in the SW Indian Ocean by this BBC News feature, with appropriate credit - http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/resources/idt-sh/deep_sea_mining Viewed by more than 280,000 people before 08:30 a.m. on the morning the item was posted on the front page of BBC News (data source: BBC Science News Editor David Shukman). Subsequent follow-up via our own social media channels for further engagement with the media audience.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/resources/idt-sh/deep_sea_mining