"We were absolutely stunned to see the animal communities, because they were so different from the hydrothermal vents seen elsewhere," Rogers told LiveScience. He and his colleagues reported their results today (Jan. 3) in the journal PLoS Biology.
Weird life flourishes at deep-sea vents the world over, but no one had ever found hydrothermal vents in Antarctica, explained Jon Copley, a professor of earth and ocean science at the University of Southampton who also participated in the research. That's largely because it's more difficult to do research in the harsh Southern Ocean than in temperate climes. [Extremophiles: World's Weirdest Life]
"It's only quite recently that we've been able to be bold enough, really, to head to the poles," Copley told LiveScience.
In 1999, Antarctic mapping surveys turned up hints of hydrothermal vent output in the water column over the East Scotia Ridge in the Atlantic section of the Southern Ocean, between Antarctica and South America and eastward. It took 10 years for researchers to get back for a full-blown expedition, during which they lowered cameras to two areas, 8,530 feet (2,600 meters) and 7,874 feet (2,400 m) deep, catching the first glimpses of Antarctic hydrothermal vents. Among them were "black smokers," chimney-like vents that emit dark-hued, superheated water.
Although the background temperature of the Southern Ocean in the area is 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees Celsius), the black smokers gushed water as hot as 721 degrees F (382 degrees C).