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A Hydrothermal Vent Discovered Off Galápagos Islands

Scientists from the Schmidt Ocean Institute trace the "Sendero del Cangrejo" or "Trail of the Crabs" hydrothermal vent in the Galapagos.
Scientists from the Schmidt Ocean Institute trace the “Sendero del Cangrejo,” or “Trail of the Crabs,” hydrothermal vent in the Galapagos. Credit: Schmidt Ocean Institute

In a groundbreaking discovery, scientists have achieved a significant milestone by tracking down a group of ethereal crabs. This unveiled the mystery of a hydrothermal goldmine comparable to the tales of following the yellow brick road or chasing the elusive white rabbit.

For about two decades, researchers held the belief that a hydrothermal vent field existed near the western Galapagos Islands. Yet, the precise location remained elusive.

Discovery of the goldmine

During their exploration of the region, scientists stumbled upon a peculiar type of crab known as a galatheid crab, or squat lobster. One after another, these ghostly crabs marked the trail that led to the long-sought hydrothermal vent field.

With growing anticipation, scientists eagerly followed the increasing number of these crustaceans until, at last, they were guided to the elusive treasure trove of hydrothermal activity.

This expansive area spans over 98,800 square feet (9,178 square meters) and features five chimney-like structures and three hot springs. The recorded highest temperature in this field is an astonishing 288°C (550°F).

Alongside the geysers, hot springs, and crabs, the Schmidt Ocean Institute team identified a flourishing ecosystem of highly adapted organisms.

Number of hydrothermal vents in the world

In the entire world, there are no more than 550 known hydrothermal vents. Surprisingly, only half of these have been directly observed. The others have been identified through signs such as chemical and temperature changes in the surrounding waters.

Hydrothermal vents take shape when water seeps into the rock on the ocean floor, occurring either at the edge of tectonic plates or where magma ascends to the surface in a different part of the plate.

The magma warms up the water, causing it to ascend. It is then expelled through cracks in the rock. This process often creates structures known as chimneys.

Exact location of the field

To pinpoint the hydrothermal field, researchers initially started their search in the broader area where a chemical anomaly had been detected in 2008. Jill McDermott, a chemical oceanographer at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania and co-leader of the expedition, explained, “One of the anomalies that we look for is a lens of low oxygen water.”

“Oxygen is completely removed through circulation in the seafloor,” said McDermott. “So the water that’s expressed at the seafloor is devoid of oxygen.” The team subsequently tracked this stream of oxygen-depleted water until it vanished, indicating their proximity to the hydrothermal vent.

Experts deployed a remotely operated vehicle to examine the ocean floor and followed the trail of crabs leading to the vent field. Dr. Jyotika Virmani, the Executive Director of the Schmidt Ocean Institute, remarked in a statement, “With 75 per cent of the seafloor still to map, finding this new vent field shows how much we still have to learn about our planet and those who live on it.”

She further said, “I am continually amazed by the otherworldly beauty of our seafloor and look forward to uncovering more.” And what did the team name the newfound hydrothermal vent field? They chose to call it the “Sendero del Cangrejo,” or the “Trail of the Crabs.”

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