We are coming live from the NOAA ship Ronald H. Brown…
Spirits were high as we launched the connection to the Daily Planet at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences on Wednesday. We had found the methane seep that we suspected to be in the area, and the video feed from the Jason ROV showed vast expanses of live mussels. Now we had a chance to share our passion for research with a new audience at the Museum.
Photographer Art Howard started the presentation at the Museum with images and video from some of our previous missions. He shared the stories we could not show live, such as the launch and recovery of the ROV, specimen processing and shipboard life. A participant in all of our deepwater canyons work, he’ll be bringing his artistic eye to the second leg of this mission. With the feed of the mussel fields behind us, Sandra Brooke, Brendan Roark and I answered questions posed by Meg Lowman, Director of the Nature Research Center. “What are some of the challenges of doing research at sea?” “Why are you studying the canyons?” “What are you learning about corals?” Midway through the discussion we interrupted the questions to point to the monitor. Written inside the lid of the bio-box on the Jason, 1600 meters down and with mussels as the backdrop, was a message: “Greetings to the NC museum of Natural Sciences.” Live research coming to you not only from sea, but from the bottom of the deep sea!
Perhaps the world’s largest methane cold seep area was discovered this week by an international, interagency team of scientists aboard the NOAA ship Ronald H. Brown, using the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s ROV Jason II. This is only the third documented seep site on the US Atlantic Coast, and by far the most extensive; the two paired seeps are estimated to be at least a kilometer long and in places hundreds of meters across. Densely packed seep mussels carpeted the bottom as far as the ROV cameras could see, and in a few locations large plumes of active methane bubbles streamed towards the surface from cracks in the seafloor. The seep mussels have bacteria living in their gills that use the methane to make energy and provide a constant energy source in the otherwise food-poor deep sea. This type of energy production is called chemosynthesis, and it allows large numbers of ‘chemosynthetic’ animals such as mussels to thrive over the seep area, along with a diverse community of other animals. Many of the mussels, as well as patches of the bottom, are covered by a thick white bacterial mat, which also thrives on the bubbling methane. Dead mussel shells on the periphery of the seep may indicate areas of past methane activity. At some seep sites there are tubeworms and clams that use sulfides instead of methane in a similar way. Unlike cold seeps found elsewhere, there were none of these seen at the new seep site, or the one explored last year in Baltimore Canyon. Sea cucumbers were seen tucked into the tight mounds of mussels and shrimp swam above them. Many species of fish, including some with unusual behaviors, were common around this unique ecosystem. These seeps are unique, and our time out here is just the beginning of the work it will take to begin to understand them. Co-led by Dr. Steve W. Ross of UNC-Wilmington and Dr. Sandra Brooke of Florida State University, the researchers from the numerous collaborating institutions used the diverse capabilities of Jason and the Ronald Brown to capture high definition video, sample the sediment at the site, collect live mussels for genetic and reproductive studies, collect large dead shells and rocks for aging analysis, take water samples to examine water chemistry, as well as sample associated animals for examining food webs. Major funding for this expedition was provided to CSA Ocean Sciences and their collaborators by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, and NOAA provided funding for the Ronald H. Brown and Jason ROV. US Geological Survey and other collaborators also provided a variety of resources.
Collaborating institutions and principal investigators include:
- Bureau of Ocean Energy Management
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
- CSA Ocean Sciences, Inc.
- Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
- Univ. of North Carolina at Wilmington (Dr. S. W. Ross)
- Florida State University (Dr. S. Brooke)
- US Geological Survey (Drs. A. Demopoulos, C. Morrison, C. Kellogg, N. Prouty)
- Texas A&M University (Dr. B. Roark)
- Netherlands Institute of Sea Research (Drs. F. Mienis, G. Duineveld)
- Oregon Institute of Marine Biology (Dr. C. Young)
- University of Rhode Island (Dr. R. Mather)
- Univ. of Louisiana at Lafayette (Dr. S. France)
- Bangor University (Dr. A. Davies)
- ARTWORK, Inc. (A. Howard)
- NC Museum of Natural Sciences (L. Baird)