Monday, May 30, 2005

Discovery of new life near underwater volcano

A University biology professor is part of a trailblazing mission to investigate a new underwater volcano growing in the Samoan chain.

Traveling last month in a 7-foot-wide titanium bubble called a submersible, Oregon Institute of Marine Biology Director Craig Young said he saw unexpected varieties of wildlife that will be the subject of future research.

"Nobody's ever taken a submersible to Samoa before," Young said. "It's exploration, just like Lewis and Clark."

Hubert Staudigel, a geologist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, and Stan Hart, a geochemist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, had been studying the Vailulu'u volcano to monitor the movement of the earth's tectonic plates. Deposits of magma known as "hot spots" exist below these plates that make up the earth's surface, and they form volcanoes when they push upward. As the tectonic plates naturally shift, the portion of the plate that is on top of the hot spot changes, creating a new volcano. Staudigel compared this to shifting the position of a table underneath a leaky roof.

"The most recent drop points to where the dripping is," Staudigel said.
In the Samoan chain, the most recent drop is Nafanua, growing up inside the summit crater of Vailulu'u at an unusually fast rate.

"This cone has grown hundreds of meters high just within the last two years," Young said. "It will eventually become one of the islands that people could live on."

Staudigel said this volcano is currently at a critical juncture because, as underwater volcanoes approach the surface of the water, eruptions become more likely; in a process similar to the rush of bubbles when a soda can is opened, the gas within the magma is finally free to expand and explode. Another byproduct of this juncture is that iron and carbon in the magma meet with oxygen in the water, and the energy released in this oxidization process contributes to the growth of bacteria, which in turn become food for other organisms.

"We saw much potential in looking at the biology of the system," Staudigel said, explaining why he recruited Young to join the project.

As their submersible descended into the mouth of the volcano, Young and his cohorts were greeted with a slithering surprise.

"(The submersible) immediately became surrounded by all these eels coming out of the cracks and crevices," Young said.

Young said the usual assortment of animal life in such an area includes invertebrates such as clams and mussels, but all his team found were eels and microbials.

"This is a totally different animal assembly than has been seen in a hot water system before," Young said.

It is currently unknown why the volcano attracts such an unusual crowd.

"Until we can catch one (of the eels), we won't even know what it is," Young said. "I'm sure they're doing something unique, whether or not they're a new species."

Young said that the cruise in March and April, when the eels were discovered, was a three-day reconnaissance tour and that a trip involving eight all-day dives will be made in late June and early July.

"That's where we'll do most of the research," he said.

Most of Young's research takes place on deep sea dives in locations far from Oregon, including the Gulf of Mexico, the Arabian Sea, the North Atlantic Ocean, the Bahamas and Hawaii. He said undergraduate and graduate students frequently accompany him on his trips. Because of the high number of researchers from other institutions, the only other University representative present on the Vailulu'u trip was post-doctoral fellow Sandra Brook, who studies coral reefs.

"We actually have funding for the students ... that we can't use because there's not enough berths for students," Young said.

International collaboration was an important part of the expedition. In addition to scientists from the United States, Young said scientists from Australia and the United Kingdom were also involved.
Adele Pile, senior lecturer at the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Sydney in Australia, has worked with Young since she was a post-doctoral fellow in his lab from 1997-98 and was co-leader with him on the biology portion of this project. She said in an e-mail that the Australian team's role in the research involves understanding the type and diversity of microbes around the volcano and mapping the habitat.

"As each of us has a unique set of skills to bring to any project, Craig (Young) as a larval biologist and I as a microbial ecologist, the best way to answer the questions is through collaboration," Pile said in the e-mail.

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