Two fields of previously unknown volcanic vents off the coast of La Paz, Mexico, and the wonderlands around them have been revealed in just 33 days by the Schmidt Ocean Institute's research vessel Falkor. Along with iridescent blue worms and calcite spires that look like cave-floor stalagmites, the mission found what are thought to be six species of animals never before seen by human eyes.
Hydrothermal vents provide the closest thing we can find to alien ecosystems without leaving Earth. Moreover, since many scientists maintain they provided the original spark of life, they offer the possibility of telling us where we came from.
The Pescadero Basin, which lies between the Baja California peninsula and the Mexican mainland, hosts fields of vents whose high temperatures and chemical profusion allow life to flourish around them where the seething fluids cool down.
The vents are unlike any found elsewhere in the world, because the fluids they pump out are clear, rather than having the dark appearance that gives most hydrothermal vents the nickname “black smokers”. Consequently, while any unexplored hydrothermal vents may host species we have never seen before, these are particularly likely prospects.
The project revealed ten species already known from vents outside the Pescadero Basin, but not seen within it, and six that have yet to be matched to any record. The latter include; arrow worms, crustaceans, mollusks, roundworms, and polychaetes (bristle worms).
The Auka vent field was discovered in 2015 and the JaichaMaa ‘ja’ag field in 2018. Now, the Falkor, in the course of its last expedition for Schmidt before being replaced, has found a set of vents halfway between them, named Maija awi. It also discovered the ’Melsuu vents to the south of JaichMaa ‘ja’ag.
Maija awi looks like a dragon to some people and was given the name of the water serpent in the Kumiai people's creation story. ’Melsuu, which hosts particularly abundant bright blue worms, means blue in the Kiliwa language of peninsula's first people.
Missions such as these provide so much material to study that it usually takes years before analysis is published in peer-reviewed journals, so none of the identified species have been described yet.
“Between the 2018 and 2021 Gulf of California expeditions, we have covered an unprecedented area of nearly 20,000 square kilometers, which is about 1/8th of the total surface area of the Gulf of California,” said co-Principal Investigator Dr. Ronald Spelz-Madero of the Autonomous University of Baja California in a statement. The Gulf of California is evolving rapidly, making it a particularly good place to learn about the way continental margins form.
Besides studying the chemistry and biology of the vents, the mission sought to resolve the question of whether the newly discovered vents, and those found on previous missions, were all fed from a single reservoir.