Spectacular 'Mirror Pools' and Large 'Living Rocks' Discovered During Deep-sea Expedition in Gulf of California

A deep-sea expedition to a "magnificent" underwater ecosystem in the Gulf of California has discovered towering mineral structures up to 75 feet high and 33 feet across which feature spectacular reflective "mirror pools."

The towers, or "pagodas," are located around 6,500 feet below the surface in an area filled with hydrothermal vents (cracks or fissures in the seafloor found in volcanically active regions that spew out heated fluids) and cold seeps (cracks or fissures where hydrocarbon-rich fluid seeps up from below the seafloor.)

With the help of a remotely-operated submersible equipped with 4K underwater cameras, the team aboard the Schmidt Ocean Institute's research vessel R/V Falkor spotted areas where superheated fluids from the vents—which can reach temperatures of up to around 700 degrees Fahrenheit—collected underneath flat structures on the towers known as "flanges," creating the otherworldly illusion of an upside-down mirror.

"Our discoveries exceeded my wildest dreams of what we would find," Mandy Joye from the University of Georgia, who led the expedition, told Newsweek. "We hoped to document new features and habitats—which we did—but the larger, more long-term, goal is to explore habitat and ecosystem connectivity.

"Specifically, I am fascinated by the life forms that exist in the most extreme environments on Earth—many of those habitats are in the deep ocean and the incredibly active pagoda structures that we found offer habitats ripe for discovery," Joye said.

While they are still analyzing the data they collected, the researchers think that the towers form like so: when the low pH, hot, hydrothermal fluids mix with cold seawater, a number of minerals are deposited spontaneously, forming the foundational structures—the tower spine. Then, fluid continues to feed and flow through the structure promoting its growth.

"As the towers continue to grow, some channels close and others open up," Joye said. "The feature grows vertically and laterally—the details of how this works remain to be discovered, but it is fascinating to think about. The outer parts—and the inactive parts—are cold but the parts with flow are hot."

According to Joye, the towers are biological hotspots for life, despite the fact that the hydrothermal fluids contain high levels of sulfide, which can be harmful to living organisms.

"The entire structure is teeming with life—we never saw a surface that was 'barren' to the eye," she said. "Every surface on the 'living rocks' was covered with colorful microbes and/or animals. These structures offer a new habitat—new as in never explored or seen before—for life that we aim to better document and understand. I cannot properly articulate how wonderful these very large geological structures are."

"We are still processing data but nothing of this size or scale has been seen to our knowledge and we've read of similar features elsewhere," Joye said. "I think they are a new type of hydrothermal tower—in terms of the minerals and habitat they create. Flanges trapping fluids have been documented before but again, these are geologically unique and biologically and microbiologically—I've never seen, or read about, anything like this."

Due to the unique nature of the ecosystem, the researchers are confident that they could potentially identify previously undiscovered species as result of the expedition.

"We are certain to discover new microorganisms and new larger organisms when we complete analysis of our genomics data sets. With extreme habitats like this—high temperature, high pressure, variable and fluctuating habitats, toxic chemicals—the selection pressure is high for novel organisms and metabolic modes," Joye said. "These organisms may generate natural products that have application in medicine or biotechnology. The sky is really the limit, in terms of discovery, with a place like this."

Even though Joye described the hydrothermal ecosystem as "one of the most magnificent things" she had ever seen in the natural world, the impact of humanity on this deep-sea landscape was clear for all to see.

"Unfortunately, even in these remote and beautiful environments we saw copious amounts of trash including fishing nets, deflated Mylar balloons, and even a discarded Christmas tree," Joye said. "This provided a stark juxtaposition next to the spectacular mineral structures and biodiversity."

Nevertheless, during the latest expedition, the researchers were able to study hydrothermal and gas plumes in fine detail using a host of advanced technology, including radiation-tracking devices and fluid samplers, as well as the 4K camera.

The scientists hope that the data they collected will help them to better understand the methane cycle in the deep-sea environment. Methane—which the team detected high concentrations of in the hydrothermal fluids and gas samples—is a gas which has a greenhouse effect that is 30 times stronger than carbon dioxide.

"It is a different world down there," Schmidt Ocean Institute Cofounder, Wendy Schmidt, said in a statement. "Each dive feels like floating into a science fiction film. The complex layers of data we've collected aboard Falkor during this expedition will help tell the story of this remote place and bring it to public attention.

"Witnessing these remarkable oceanscapes, we are reminded that although they are out of our everyday sight, they are hardly immune from human impact," she said. "Our hope is to inspire people to learn more and care more about our ocean."

This article was updated to include additional comments from Mandy Joye.

mirror, hydrothermal fluid
This image shows the mirror effect created by the heated hydrothermal fluid. Schmidt Ocean Institute

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