PORT OF SPAIN – For the first time, local marine biologists Drs. Diva Amon and Judith Gobin have investigated the deep sea off Trinidad and Tobago, discovering two new cold seeps hosting unique communities of animals.
The discovery, made almost a mile deep, reveals important information about the biodiversity of the deep ocean around Trinidad and Tobago. Additionally it enables comparisons with similar habitats elsewhere in the Caribbean.
“These communities are absolutely amazing: hundreds of thousands of 8-inch deep-sea mussels, as well as 3-foot tubeworms, crabs, shrimp, snails and fishes were found living at the seeps between 1000 and 1650 metres depth” says Dr. Amon, a postdoctoral researcher.
The information gained from this study is crucial to understanding Trinidad and Tobago’s almost entirely unknown deep ocean, especially given the increasing oil and natural gas exploration and exploitation”.
Amon is lead author of a research paper reporting the work this week in the scientific journal Frontiers in Marine Science, in collaboration with Dr. Judith Gobin of the Department of Life Sciences at The University of the West Indies, and colleagues from Duke University, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of Southampton, and the Ocean Exploration Trust.
Eighty-three species of animals were recorded from extensive seep communities at four sites, two previously known and two new. The newly discovered seep sites have been named after two Trinbagonian female folklore characters: La Diablesse and Mama D’Leau.
One of the most remarkable discoveries was that during the surveys in this area, 85 further sites were detected off the east coast of Trinidad.
Cold seeps are areas where fluids rich in hydrogen sulfide and methane leak from the seafloor, similar to hydrothermal vents. This fluid provides the energy to sustain large communities of life in the harsh conditions that exist in the deep sea (no light, approximately 4°C temperature and more than 100 atmospheres of pressure).
At cold seeps, bacteria create food via chemosynthesis in the absence of light, using the chemicals in the fluid, in a similar way to plants, which use sunlight for photosynthesis.
“These cold-seep sites and the associated fauna, were an exciting find that I can now use as real samples of our own deep-sea, for my students” says Dr. Gobi.
“I am extremely pleased to be engaging in this cutting-edge exploration and science in Trinidad and Tobago waters” says Gobin.
Species of a purple octopus, a white sponge and an orange anemone were also discovered and being new to science, do not yet have names. Many of the animals are also poorly understood, such as a species of eelpout fish that lives amongst the mussels, Pachycara caribbaeum, that is known from only one other small site in the Cayman Trench.
Unfortunately, these newly discovered areas are already under threat. These cold seeps, potentially Ecologically and Biologically Significant Areas (EBSAs), will likely be irreparably damaged by drilling and associated oil and gas activities. Scientific research in this area is struggling to keep up with such commercial activities and without targeted actions, these species and their habitats may be lost before they are even studied.