Magazine article by Rutgers researcher details revival of life after deep-sea volcanic eruption

August 23, 2001

NEW BRUNSWICK/PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- The rapid revival of life around hydrothermal vents on the floor of the Pacific Ocean after a lava flow had appeared to exterminate it is the subject of an article co-authored by Rutgers researcher Richard A. Lutz in the September-October issue of American Scientist magazine.

Lutz is director of the Center for Deep Sea Ecology and Biotechnology at Rutgers Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences. The magazine is published by Sigma Xi, a scientific research society based in Research Triangle Park, N.C.

As described in the article, "Life After Death in the Deep Sea," Lutz first encountered the strange ecology of hydrothermal vents in the late 1970s off the coast of the Galapagos Islands.

On a subsequent expedition in 1991 to hydrothermal vents more than 2,550 meters below the surface off the coast of Mexico, the scientists found themselves in the middle of a volcanic eruption. A blanket of fresh lava killed the sea life the researchers hoped to study. Many of the creatures, such as giant tube worms, clams and fish, were instantly incinerated by lava.

In the article, Lutz details how he led a series of return trips over a nine-year period that shocked the scientific world: Not only did the researchers find new geological formations that scientists had formerly believed took eons to evolve, the scientists found an explosion of new biological life, including new life forms ranging from microscopic crustaceans to two new species of octopus.

The creatures living around thermal vents function without light and near vent water that would seem too hot and toxic to support life, reports Lutz. Among them are worms, clams, mussels, mollusks, octopuses, fish, crabs and other crustaceans. To date, he notes in the article, more than 500 new species have been found at vent sites throughout the world's oceans.

Some of the strangest are two kinds of vent worms: the tubeworm (Riftia pachyptila), which can grow to 6 feet tall, yet has no eyes, mouth, stomach or gut, and the hairy, 5-inch Pompeii worm (Alvinella pompejana), which lives in the hottest environment of any animal on Earth, he notes.
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Lutz's co-authors are Timothy M. Shank, an assistant scientist in the department of biology at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Mass., and Robert Evans, a free-lance writer based in California.

The research was supported by the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Sea Grant College Program, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Rutgers University

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