On the last day of a research cruise off the coast of Antarctica this spring, Hamilton College marine geologist Eugene Domack and his team lowered a video camera overboard to capture images of the seafloor sediments they had been studying. They didn’t look at the tape until they were heading home, but when they did they were surprised to see a thriving community. Beneath half a mile of frigid ocean water, at the bottom of a deep trough that never sees the light of day, lay a chiaroscuro world of grayish bacteria and giant brilliant white clams.
Most of the life the team found on the videotape was huddled around three-foot-tall mud volcanoes shaped like Hershey’s Kisses. Dozens of foot-long clams crowd the volcanoes’ flanks, Domack says, and everywhere in between grows a pustular, thin white mat of bacteria. Cut off from sunlight or any outside food sources for 10,000 years by the Larsen B ice shelf, the ecosystem fed on chemicals—probably methane—bubbling up through sediments, he says. In 2002, however, the 600-foot-thick sheet of ice crumbled, exposing the hidden depths. Oceanographers now hope the discovery will teach them more about the origins of life in extreme conditions.
Unfortunately, they are running out of time. The underwater universe is being buried as debris and outside organic material descend on it. “Already places are being covered,” Domack says. “There is a chance that in a short amount of time parts of this ecosystem will not be available for direct study.”