Deep-sea mining is once again in the news. As Kevin Zelnio frustratingly points out on twitter, news articles often fail to mention the primary research that has been conducted at these sites or make more than a cursory statement concerning their ecology. This has the effect of marginalizing an entire ecosystem and makes it difficult for the public to grasp the richness and diversity of deep-sea hydrothermal vent communities, some of which may face commercial exploitation. Here is a selection of recent primary literature, with abstracts, on the ecology of deep-sea hydrothermal vents at the center of the mining debate, Manus Basin (you may recognize some of the authors).
Strategies for mitigation of seafloor massive sulphide (SMS) extraction in the deep sea include establishment of suitable reference sites that allow for studies of natural environmental variability and that can serve as sources of larvae for re-colonisation of extracted hydrothermal fields. In this study, we characterize deep-sea vent communities in Manus Basin (Bismarck Sea, Papua New Guinea) and use macrofaunal data sets from a proposed reference site (South Su) and a proposed mine site (Solwara 1) to test the hypothesis that there was no difference in macrofaunal community structure between the sites. We used dispersion weighting to adjust taxa-abundance matrices to down-weight the contribution of contagious distributions of numerically abundant taxa. Faunal assemblages of 3 habitat types defined by biogenic taxa (2 provannid snails, Alviniconcha spp. and Ifremeria nautilei; and a sessile barnacle, Eochionelasmus ohtai) were distinct from one another and from the vent peripheral assemblage, but were not differentiable from mound-to-mound within a site or between sites. Mussel and tubeworm populations at South Su but not at Solwara 1 enhance the taxonomic and habitat diversity of the proposed reference site.
Hydrothermal vents are ephemeral systems. When venting shuts down, sulfide-dependent taxa die off, and non-vent taxa can colonize the hard substrata. In Manus Basin (Papua New Guinea), where hydrothermally active and inactive sites are interspersed, hydroids, cladorhizid sponges, barnacles, bamboo corals, and other invertebrate types may occupy inactive sites. Carbon and nitrogen isotopic compositions of animals occupying inactive sites are consistent with nutritional dependence on either chemoautotrophically or photosynthetically produced organic material, but sulfur isotopic compositions of these animals point to a chemoautotrophic source of sulfur from dissolved sulfide in vent fluids rather than sulfur derived from seawater sulfate through photosynthesis. Given that suspension-feeding and micro-carnivorous invertebrates are the biomass dominants at inactive sites, the primary source of chemoautotrophic nutrition is likely suspended particulates and organisms delivered from nearby active vents.
Hydrothermal fluids passing through sediments create a habitat hypothesized to influence the community structure of infaunal macrobenthos. Here we characterize the density, biomass, species composition, diversity, distributions, lifestyle, and nutritional sources of macroinfauna in hydrothermal sediments in NE and SW Pacific settings, and draw comparisons in search of faunal attributes characteristic of this habitat. There is increasing likelihood that seafloor massive sulfide deposits, associated with active and inactive hydrothermal venting, will be mined commercially. This creates a growing imperative for a more thorough understanding of the structure, dynamics, and resilience of the associated sediment faunas, and has stimulated the research presented here. Macrobenthic assemblages were studied at Manus Basin (1430–1634 m, Papua New Guinea [PNG]) as a function of location (South Su vs. Solwara 1), and hydrothermal activity (active vs. inactive), and at Middle Valley (2406–2411 m, near Juan de Fuca Ridge) as a function of habitat (active clam bed, microbial mat, hot mud, inactive background sediment). The studies conducted in PNG formed part of the environmental impact assessment work for the Solwara 1 Project of Nautilus Minerals Niugini Limited. We hypothesized that hydrothermally active sites should support (a) higher densities and biomass, (b) greater dominance and lower diversity, (c) a higher fraction of deposit feeders, and (d) greater isotopic evidence for chemosynthetic food sources than inactive sites. Manus Basin macrofauna generally had low density (<1000 ind. m−2) and low biomass (0.1–1.07 g m−2), except for the South Su active site, which had higher density (3494 ind. m−2) and biomass (11.94 g m−2), greater dominance (R1D=76%), lower diversity and more spatial (between-core) homogeneity than the Solwara 1 and South Su inactive sites. Dominant taxa at Manus Basin were Spionidae (Prionospio sp.) in active sediments, and tanaids and deposit-feeding nuculanoid bivalves in active and inactive sediments. At Middle Valley, hot mud sediments supported few animals (1011 ind m−2) and low biomass (1.34 g m−2), while active clam bed sediments supported a high-density (19,984 ind m−2), high-biomass (4.46 g m−2), low-diversity assemblage comprised of largely orbiniid and syllid polychaetes. Microbial mat sediments had the most diverse assemblage (mainly orbiniid, syllid, dorvilleid, and ampharetid polychaetes) with intermediate densities (8191 ind m−2) and high biomass (4.23 g m−2). Fauna at both Manus Basin active sites had heavy δ13C signatures (−17‰ to −13‰) indicative of chemosynthetic, TCA-cycle microbes at the base of the food chain. In contrast, photosynthesis and sulfide oxidation appear to fuel most of the fauna at Manus Basin inactive sites (δ13C=−29‰ to −20‰) and Middle Valley active clam beds and microbial mats (δ13C=−36‰ to −20‰). The two hydrothermal regions, located at opposite ends of the Pacific Ocean, supported different habitats, sharing few taxa at the generic or family level, but both exhibited elevated infaunal density and high dominance at selected sites. Subsurface-deposit feeding and bacterivory were prevalent feeding modes. Both the Manus Basin and Middle Valley assemblages exhibit significant within-region heterogeneity, apparently conferred by variations in hydrothermal activity and associated biogenic habitats.
Deep-sea hydrothermal vents provide patchy, ephemeral habitats for specialized communities of animals that depend on chemoautotrophic primary production. Unlike eastern Pacific hydrothermal vents, where population structure has been studied at large (thousands of kilometres) and small (hundreds of meters) spatial scales, population structure of western Pacific vents has received limited attention. This study addresses the scale at which genetic differentiation occurs among populations of a western Pacific vent-restricted gastropod, Ifremeria nautilei.
We used mitochondrial and DNA microsatellite markers to infer patterns of gene flow and population subdivision. A nested sampling strategy was employed to compare genetic diversity in discrete patches of Ifremeria nautilei separated by a few meters within a single vent field to distances as great as several thousand kilometres between back-arc basins that encompass the known range of the species. No genetic subdivisions were detected among patches, mounds, or sites within Manus Basin. Although I. nautilei from Lau and North Fiji Basins (~1000 km apart) also exhibited no evidence for genetic subdivision, these populations were genetically distinct from the Manus Basin population.
An unknown process that restricts contemporary gene flow isolates the Manus Basin population ofIfremeria nautilei from widespread populations that occupy the North Fiji and Lau Basins. A robust understanding of the genetic structure of hydrothermal vent populations at multiple spatial scales defines natural conservation units and can help minimize loss of genetic diversity in situations where human activities are proposed and managed.
No abstract, but equatorial occurrence of Osedax on pig bone, in Manus Basin.
Scientific exploration of the deep sea in the late 1970s led to the discovery of seafloor massive sulphides at hydrothermal vents. More recently, sulphide deposits containing high grades of ore have been discovered in the southwest Pacific. In addition to metal-rich ores, hydrothermal vents host ecosystems based on microbial chemoautotrophic primary production, with endemic invertebrate species adapted in special ways to the vent environment. Although there has been considerable effort to study the biology and ecology of vent systems in the decades since these systems were first discovered, there has been limited attention paid to conservation issues. Three priority recommendations for conservation science at hydrothermal vent settings are identified here: (i) determine the natural conservation units for key species with differing life histories; (ii) identify a set of first principles for the design of preservation reference areas and conservation areas; (iii) develop and test methods for effective mitigation and restoration to enhance the recovery of biodiversity in sulphide systems that may be subject to open-cut mining.