Scientific Gear as a Vector for Non-Native Species at Deep-Sea Hydrothermal Vents
The fauna of deep-sea hydrothermal vents are among the most isolated and inaccessible biological communities on Earth. Most vent sites can only be visited by subsea vehicles, which can and do move freely among these communities. Researchers assume individuals of the regionally homogeneous vent fauna are killed by the change in hydrostatic pressure the animals experience when the subsea vehicles, which collected them, rise to the surface. After an Alvin dive, we found 38 apparently healthy individuals of a vent limpet in a sample from a hydrothermally inactive area. Prompted by our identification of these specimens as Lepetodrilus gordensis, a species restricted to vents 635 km to the south of our dive site, we tested whether they were from a novel population or were contaminants from the dive made 36 h earlier. The 16S gene sequences, morphology, sex ratio, bacterial colonies, and stable isotopes uniformly indicated the specimens came from the previous dive. We cleaned the sampler, but assumed pressure changes would kill any organisms we did not remove and that the faunas of the 2 areas were nearly identical and disease-free. Our failure to completely clean the gear on the subsea vehicle meant we could have introduced the species and any diseases it carried to a novel location. Our findings suggest that the nearly inaccessible biological communities at deep-sea vents may be vulnerable to anthropogenic alteration, despite their extreme physical conditions.
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