When we think about marine biology, most of us imagine scientists studying sea life near our shores.
But deep sea biology is “another kettle of fish” that brings all sorts of new challenges and exciting research opportunities.
People think marine biology is really exciting and interesting, and people are really exposed to the shallow waters that we’re surrounded by. But if you go a little further offshore, the water gets a little deeper, and it gets to about 200 meters, and then it just starts to slope away,” Royal BC Museum Invertebrate Zoology collections manager Hugh MacIntosh said.
It then goes down to depths of more than 3,000 meters.
“Life down there at these depths, is so different, and so unique to what we normally see,” says MacIntosh.
“It’s cold, it’s dark, there’s tons of pressure, there’s not many nutrients. They have all sorts of really interesting adaptations to life down there.”
And these fascinating creatures have only been discovered in the last 50 years.
“In the 1970s, scientists discovered hot vents, volcanoes on the sea floor, billowing out nutrient water, and whole communities of life surrounding them. And this
completely upended our thinking about life on earth,” says MacIntosh.
“This is life that’s not dependent on the sun’s energies. These are animals that live in the pitch black environment, and they’re extracting nutrients from the centre of the earth almost.”
MacIntosh carefully opened a specimen jar containing squat lobsters, explaining that they are small crustaceans, related to crabs and shrimp.
“And they feed on things like bacteria, and they scavenge on clams and worms, and these were discovered at this same hot vent eco-system,” says MacIntosh.
MacIntosh says that when submersible cameras first relayed footage of tube worms that were discovered at the hot vents “they were so weird, and so different, that people thought they were an entirely new type, entirely new branch of life.”
Later analysis found they’re related to earthworms. The tube worms and also vent clams surround the hot vents.
“And both of them have symbiotic bacteria that live inside their bodies, that help them convert the chemical energy of these hot vents into energy for the animals,” says MacIntosh.
“As a biologist, I think that’s fascinating.”
Canada has its own hot vents off the Juan de Fuca Plate, southwest of British Columbia. Creatures found there are now part of the Royal BC Museum’s permanent collection.