Mussels and tube worms, coral crabs and brittle stars carpet the dark, frigid ocean floor, feeding off of petrochemicals that ooze from beneath the surface. These ecosystems, known as cold seeps, baffled scientists at first, but after much research, biologists realized how they thrive. Now oceanographers and deep sea scientists think that the greatest concentration of habitats may lie in the Gulf of Mexico. Since the late 1970s, more than 100 cold seep sites have been discovered there, but in a terrible twist of fate, they may all be threatened by the oil spill.
“There’s lots of uncertainty,” Charles R. Fisher, a Pennsylvania State University biologist and the leader a federal cold seep study, told The New York Times. “Our best hope is that the impact is neutral or a minor problem.”
To assess the potential damage, the Minerals Management Service is joining up with other federal agencies to see if the spill is affecting the habitats. Next month, researchers may send robots down to the gulf’s depths to take samples.
Fortunately, the branch of the MMS responsible for the surveying is “a separate environmental arm, which long ago began hiring oceanographers, geologists, ecologists and marine biologists to investigate the gulf seabed and eventually pushed through regulations meant to protect the newly discovered ecosystems,” the article states.
Biologists who have been studying the seeps are afraid that the oil could poison or suffocate the organisms, some of which may be predate Christopher Columbus. The dispersants released below the water’s surface could also have a negative effect.
Although the environmental consequences of the spill are largely unknown, perhaps scientists can learn more about how the cold seep ecosystems cope—or don't—with oil. Stay tuned for more mysteries from the seep. (And until then, check out this cool photo gallery.)