Hydrothermal Vents: Definition & Ecosystem

Instructor: Amanda Robb

Amanda holds a Masters in Science from Tufts Medical School in Cellular and Molecular Physiology. She has taught high school Biology and Physics for 8 years.

This lesson will help you understand what hydrothermal vents are and the impressive creatures that live in these harsh ecosystems. We'll talk about what animals make a home here and the adaptations that allow them to survive.

What Are Hydrothermal Vents

Imagine going home for the day. You might be picturing heading home to your house or apartment and getting cozy on the couch. But for some deep-sea creatures, home is in the deepest, darkest parts of the ocean where super-heated water from the liquid mantel of the Earth can reach up to 752 degrees Fahrenheit. It might not sound cozy to us, but these deep-sea hydrothermal vents are home to many organisms.

Hydrothermal vents are the hot springs of the ocean floor. They are formed in areas with high tectonic activity where tectonic plates collide or spread apart. Tectonic plates are sections of the Earth's crust, called the lithosphere. They drift around on currents in the liquid rock mantle underneath. When two plates collide or drift apart, volcanoes, earthquakes, and other natural phenomenon can occur.

Due to tectonic plate activity, cracks form in the deep-sea floor. This is where hydrothermal vents form. These vents allow nutrient rich, hot water to escape from inside the Earth into the cold, dark, deep ocean. Sometimes the water coming from these vents is so rich in nutrients it almost appears black or white, similar to smoke. Often hydrothermal vents are nicknamed ''deep-sea smokers'' for their smoky appearance.

A deep-sea hydrothermal vent in the Atlantic ocean
black smoker

At the sea floor, it is often incredibly dark, cold, and devoid of nutrients that tend to stay near the upper levels of the ocean. These smokers provide warmth and nutrients for specialized organisms that make a home here. Next, let's look at some of the organisms that inhabit the hydrothermal vent ecosystem.

Hydrothermal Vent Ecosystem

All ecosystems are made up of different layers called trophic levels. At the bottom level are organisms called producers, which are organisms that make their own food. Organisms that eat only producers are called primary consumers. Secondary consumers eat primary consumers, and tertiary consumers are the top dogs of the ecosystem, eating both primary and secondary consumers. Let's take a look at what organisms make up each trophic level in the hydrothermal vent ecosystem.

Producers

No sunlight penetrates the depths of the ocean floor, so plants and other photosynthetic organisms aren't the producers here. The producers of the hydrothermal vent ecosystem are chemosynthetic bacteria. These organisms use the chemicals produced by the hydrothermal vents to make food for themselves in a similar way to how plants use sunlight to make food for themselves. Some examples of these type of bacteria are Methanopyrus kandleri, Pyrolobus fumarii, and Pyrodictium abyssi.

Primary Consumers

The primary consumers that rely on these chemosynthetic bacteria include snails, clams, mussels, crabs, and shrimp. These filter feeders use the chemosynthetic bacteria as their food source and are able to make a life in the deep abyss of the hydrothermal vent.

One especially unusual member of this trophic level is the yeti crab. This crab is white, covered in many bristly hairs, and lacks eyes entirely. Although this might seem strange to us, the deep sea is so dark, the crab has evolved to not need eyes. After all, there's nothing to see in the pitch black of the hydrothermal vent anyway.

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