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| Earth on Jun 14, 2013

New deep sea community discovered off coast of Virginia

It’s one of only a few known deep sea communities along the U.S. Atlantic coastline. The researchers brought back some great photographs!

On May 8, 2013, NOAA scientists discovered a new deep sea community off the coast of Virginia in the Atlantic Ocean. The community consisted of shaggy, white patches of bacteria, dense clusters of chemosynthetic mussels and other organisms including crabs, sea cucumbers and fish. It is one of only a few known deep sea communities that exist along the U.S. Atlantic coastline.

Deep sea communities are fascinating because they are made up of organisms that are able to thrive in complete darkness. Many ecological communities on Earth rely on sunlight and the process of photosynthesis for food. In contrast, deep sea communities get their food from the process of chemosynthesis, which is driven by the chemical energy released from bacteria as they metabolize substances like sulfides and methane seeping from the seafloor.

Sample of corallimorphs collected by ROV Jason photographed under a blacklight to demonstrate florescence. Image courtesy of Art Howard, Deepwater Canyons 2013 - Pathways to the Abyss, NOAA-OER/BOEM/USGS.

Sample of corallimorphs collected by ROV Jason photographed under a blacklight to demonstrate florescence. Image courtesy of Art Howard, Deepwater Canyons 2013 – Pathways to the Abyss, NOAA-OER/BOEM/USGS.

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A crab crawling over a bed of chemosynthetic mussels. Image appears courtesy of the Deepwater Canyons 2013 expedition, NOAA, USGS and BOEM.

Cidaroid (pencil) urchin collected with the Jason II remotely operated vehicle on NOAA Ship Ronald H. Brown. Image courtesy of Art Howard, Deepwater Canyons 2013 - Pathways to the Abyss, NOAA-OER/BOEM/USGS. Download high-resolution version (5.5 Mb).

Cidaroid (pencil) urchin collected with the Jason II remotely operated vehicle on NOAA Ship Ronald H. Brown. Image courtesy of Art Howard, Deepwater Canyons 2013 – Pathways to the Abyss, NOAA-OER/BOEM/USGS. Download high-resolution version (5.5 Mb).

The new deep sea community off the coast of Virginia was first detected in 2012 when NOAA scientists observed gas bubbles rising from the seafloor about 147 kilometers (91 miles) east of Cape Henry, Virginia. This is near the area of the Atlantic Ocean where the continental shelf plunges into the deep sea. In 2013, they decided to go back and investigate.

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Location of seafloor gas seeps detected during a 2012 NOAA cruise. Image appears courtesy of NOAA’s Okeanos Expedition Program.

With the use of a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) called Jason, NOAA scientists collected photographs and samples of the seafloor near the seepage site at a depth of 1,600 meters (1 mile). At the site, they found shaggy, white patches of bacteria, dense clusters of mussels and other organisms including crabs, sea cucumbers and fish. The mussels were the dominate type of organism present in the deep sea community. According to NOAA, these mussels harbor specialized bacteria in their gills that use methane to make energy.

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A rockling fish found resting among chemosynthetic mussels in the deep sea. Image appears courtesy of the Deepwater Canyons 2013 expedition, NOAA, USGS and BOEM.

A Mola mola, or ocean sunfish, stops by for a visit during one of the dives of the Pathways to the Abyss cruise. Image courtesy of Deepwater Canyons 2013 - Pathways to the Abyss, NOAA-OER/BOEM/USGS.

A Mola mola, or ocean sunfish, stops by for a visit during one of the dives of the Pathways to the Abyss cruise. Image courtesy of Deepwater Canyons 2013 – Pathways to the Abyss, NOAA-OER/BOEM/USGS.

The new deep sea community is one of only a few known to exist along the U.S. Atlantic coastline. The best known seepage community is located off the South Carolina coast at a depth of approximately 2,500 meters (1.6 miles). During the 2012 NOAA cruise, three other potential seepage areas were identified, but they have yet to be explored.

Bottom line: On May 8, 2013, NOAA scientists discovered a new deep sea community off the coast of Virginia in the Atlantic Ocean. The community consisted of shaggy, white patches of bacteria, dense clusters of chemosynthetic mussels and other organisms including crabs, sea cucumbers and fish.

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