'Dark life' ecosystems are thriving under hydrothermal vents

An underwater robot discovers concealed cave systems bustling with never-before-seen life.
Sade Agard
ROV SuBastian takes a geologic sample from a hydrothermal black smoker near Tica Vent on the East Pacific Rise 2,500 meters deep.
ROV SuBastian takes a geologic sample from a hydrothermal black smoker near Tica Vent on the East Pacific Rise 2,500 meters deep.


Underneath hydrothermal vents on a well-known undersea volcano along the East Pacific Rise near Central America, scientists have made an exciting discovery—a brand-new ecosystem.

Using an underwater robot, the research team uncovered concealed cave systems bustling with worms, snails, and chemosynthetic bacteria that flourish in water at 75 degrees Fahrenheit (25 degrees Celsius).

The discovery adds an intriguing twist to what we know about hydrothermal vents. Importantly, these newfound communities might be at risk due to deep-sea mining.

Life beneath hydrothermal vents

The 30-day expedition occurred on the Schmidt Ocean Institute's (SOI) research vessel Falkor (too). (Yes, in case you're familiar, it was named in honor of the German novel, The Neverending Story).

"On land, we have long known of animals living in cavities underground, and in the ocean of animals living in sand and mud, but for the first time, scientists have looked for animals beneath hydrothermal vents," said Dr. Jyotika Virmani, SOI's executive director, in a press release

'Dark life' ecosystems are thriving under hydrothermal vents
A rock crust sample, upside down, reveals Oasisia and Riftia tubeworms, as well as other organisms. This is a strong argument in favor of Monika Bright’s and Sabine Gollner’s theory of species dispersal through cracks in the Earth’s crust.


Hydrothermal vents act like underwater hot springs, flowing through cracks in the Earth's crust due to tectonic activity. With the appearance of new vents, ecosystems quickly follow suit as animals colonize the area within a few years.

How animal larvae discover these new vent fields remains a mystery to scientists. 

To unravel whether animals travel through vent fluids, Dr. Monika Bright and her team from the University of Vienna employed SOI's underwater robot ROV SuBastian. Their experiments involved attaching mesh boxes over cracks in the Earth's crust.

After several days, when the boxes were removed along with the crust, the team made an exciting discovery: animals residing below the surface within hydrothermal cavities. 

In particular, the group becomes the first to investigate and confirm that tubeworm larvae can settle and even live beneath the seafloor.

"This truly remarkable discovery of a new ecosystem, hidden beneath another ecosystem, provides fresh evidence that life exists in incredible places," said Virmani.

'Dark life' and deep sea mining

Wendy Schmidt, President and Co-founder of Schmidt Ocean Institute, emphasizes that the findings from every SOI expedition underscore the importance of thoroughly exploring our oceans to understand the mysteries of the deep sea.

This becomes especially crucial in light of deep sea mining.

"The discovery of new creatures, landscapes, and now, an entirely new ecosystem underscores just how much we have yet to discover about our Ocean," she emphasized.

"And how important it is to protect what we don't yet know or understand." 

The scientific group was joined by Los Angeles-based artist Max Hooper Schneider, who crafted sculptures. These artworks were captured on camera within the vent systems using the ROV SuBastian and later brought back to the surface.

"I will forever remain bewitched by dark life," said Schneider. "Lightless ecosystems of the deep ocean are imperative to understanding the extremophilic dawns of planet Earth."

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