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Yellowstone Lake: Life near thermal vents

Bozeman (Global Adventures): A rare oasis of life exists in the midst of hundreds of geothermal vents at the bottom of Yellowstone Lake, researchers say. A colony of moss, worms and various forms of shrimp flourishes in an area where the water is inky black, about 90 degrees Fahrenheit, and a cauldron of nutrients, gases and poisons, scientists from the Montana State University (MSU) reported in the September issue of Geobiology. One vent is about 100 feet below the surface of the Lake. It is a third of a mile offshore in the West Thumb region. Worms and shrimp live within a two feet (0.61 meter) area were moss encircles the vent.

“This particular vent seemed unique relative to all other active vents thus far observed in the lake in that it is robustly colonized by plants,” one scientist said. Yellowstone Lake doesn’t have the environment on the floor to grow The Fontinalis moss. A worm found associated with the moss had never been reported in North America. Yellowstone Lake related first in-depth study of the biology associated with any geothermal vent published.

“The proliferation of complex higher organisms in close association with a Yellowstone Lake geothermal vent parallels that documented for deep marine vents. Therefore to our knowledge this is the first such documentation for a freshwater habitat,” the researchers said.

The vent is evidently responsible for the moss being able to live in what humans perceive as total darkness,

but these plants have the ability to somehow find and use very low light, Varley said. At times, the scene around the vent looked like it belongs in a snow globe because of a beige-colored silica and aluminum mineral that flies out of the vent and settles on the moss. Which further lessens the ability of the moss to acquire light that is essential for it to photosynthesize. The nutrients contained in the vent water is Key to the survival and proliferation of this moss in this environment. The nutrients feed the moss, which feeds the shrimp and worms. The vent water also contains toxins such as arsenic and cadmium. It is super-saturated with carbon dioxide, hydrogen and other gases.

“If there are gases of that type anywhere else in Yellowstone. It follows that there would be life that has been introduced and evolved there that uses those resources,” Varley said. Using a map created by Lisa Morgan (U.S. Geological Survey), the team discovered that the lake contains hundreds of active and dormant vents. Scientists have mapped the lake bottom three times over the last 136 years. Extremely limited studies done in the biology around the vents.

The vents are mostly on the northern half of the lake, inside the Yellowstone caldera, and span from the West Thumb region to Mary Bay. The lake bottom is probably the third largest geothermal field in the park. It is estimated to contribute 10 percent of the total geothermal output in the park, as well as 15 percent of the water that’s in Yellowstone Lake, Varley said.

Despite the geothermal activity,

the lakes surface water temperature rarely gets above 64 Fahrenheit. Researchers used a Remotely Operated Vehicle specially designed for the task by Dave Lovalvo of Eastern Oceanics Research. About half the size of a household refrigerator, the ROV is much smaller than the ROVs he built for exploring deep ocean environments, but it can do most of the same sampling, Lovalvo said.

“I’d like to think that this (ROV) has and will continue to assist the National Park Service and the public in not only better understanding this truly amazing place, but also preserving it for future generations,” said Lovalvo, who has been involved in Yellowstone research for 25 years. Yellowstone is a very unique environment and one of the few places in the world where one can compare an inland, hydrothermally active lake to an active volcanic area of the ocean. The Geobiology paper compared each vent to an island with its own chemistry and conditions. Future research may focus on genetic communication between those islands.

One example of a Yellowstone organism leading to an industrial product is Thermus aquaticus. A heat-resistant micro-organism discovered in a Yellowstone hot spring in the 1960s. Subsequent research eventually led to today’s modern DNA testing.

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Chief Editor at Global Adventures Magazine

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