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Life in the Extreme
A deep sea hydrothermal vent seems about as hospitable as the moon. At a mile and a half from the surface, the ocean is utterly dark ? the sun never reaches this deep.

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Toxic fluids spew from chimney-like structures. The pressure is so intense that it would crush a human's lungs instantly. The water is, at turns, hotter than boiling and nearly freezing. It's not the kind of place where you'd imagine life surviving.

And yet animals like the giant tubeworm don't just survive, they thrive in these hydrothermal vents ? and the black smoker chimneys that often rise above them.

What's a hydrothermal vent?
A hydrothermal vent is an opening in the ocean's floor where superheated water containing minerals flows out. The hottest vents of all are "black smokers." Black smokers have chimneys made of particles that form when super-hot mineral-laden vent water meets the surrounding cold water.

A Great Team!
Tubeworms and bacteria make a great team. The tubeworm uses its red plume to filter oxygen, hydrogen sulfide, and carbon dioxide from seawater. The bacteria living inside the tubeworm use these compounds to produce carbohydrates. Tubeworms, though they're not technically "eating," absorb some of these carbohydrates for nourishment.

The animal that shouldn't exist
Thirty years ago, when scientists discovered tubeworms in deep sea vents, they were flabbergasted. They didn't understand how life in the dark, deep sea was possible. Without sunlight, there could be no plants and no way to create food usingphotosynthesis.

What's more, tubeworms had no mouth and no digestive system. They couldn't eat even if there was food! By scientific reasoning, tubeworms weren't supposed to exist. And yet they did!

Yum!
So how do tubeworms get their food? Their survival depends on asymbioticrelationship with the billions of bacteria that live inside them. These bacteria convert the chemicals that come from the hydrothermal vents into food for the worm. This chemical-based food making process is calledchemosynthesis.

A giant lipstick
Using the carbohydrates it gets from bacteria, a giant tubeworm can grow up to 8 feet long and 4 inches wide. With its bright-red plume, a tubeworm looks like a giant tube of lipstick. A tubeworm's plume is red because it's filled with blood. More specifically, it's filled with blood carrying hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is what makes our blood red and it's responsible for transporting oxygen.
 
Life in a tube
When you look at a picture of a tubeworm, most of what you're seeing is not really the tubeworm's body. It's a protective tube made out of a hard substance called chitin. Chitin is the same material that's found in the outer skeletons of crabs, lobsters, and shrimp. The tube supports the soft worm's body and protects it from toxic chemicals from the vents. It's also an excellent defense against predators. Chitin is very tough ? too tough for crabs and fish to bite through.

Crab
Life everywhere you look
Tubeworms aren't the only animals that live in deep sea vents. Colonies of large brown mussels and giant clams sit on the bottom. Spider-like crabs crawl all over the vent, eating anything they can scavenge. Tangles of soft-bodied spaghetti worms drape over rocks. Swarms of tiny blind shrimp hover near the chimneys.

There are even octopi and fish. And then there are organisms you can't see without magnification. Scientists are discovering new creatures in the deep sea vents every few weeks. They have identified more than 500 organisms so far.

The case of the missing plumes
Why are some tubeworms missing their plumes? Just as tortoises draw their heads inside their shells when threatened, tubeworms draw their plumes inside their bodies when predators come near. If a tubeworm doesn't draw in its plume fast enough, it can become a tasty treat for a fish or a crab.

 
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Pictures: DCI (3) | I. MacDonald/OAR/National Undersea Research Program (NURP)
& Texas A & M University |