Hydrothermal vents and whale falls

We are investigating polychaetes thriving in rare chemically-rich ocean environments.

Many polychaeates have specialised to thrive in chemosynthetic environments, such as deep-sea hydrothermal vents, cold seeps and the carcasses of dead whales, known as 'whale falls'. 

One example is giant tube worms in the genus Riftia living around hydrothermal vents. They gain their energy via bacteria that react oxygen with hydrogen sulphide pouring out of vent chimneys.

Understanding polychaete diversity and connectivity in these unique ecosystems allows us to assess the potential threats of mining massive sulphides at hydrothermal vents.

Studying the genetics of polychaetes in chemosynthetic environments provides clues as to how they can disperse between these isolated, island-like habitats.

Research focuses

Specific projects include:

  • taxonomy and molecular phylogenetics of species to determine their evolutionary origin and the connections between isolated ecosystems
  • economy and taxonomy of whale fall ecosystems to understand dispersal and evolutionary innovation
  • the fossil history of hydrothermal vents and whale falls, using the burrows of polychaetes in bones and sulphide chimneys

New species of polychaetes are discovered in every study of deep-sea hydrothermal vents, meaning there is a wealth of data waiting to be interpreted.

Glossary

Phylogenetics
Using genetic information, not just physical characteristics, to determine the evolutionary relationships between organisms.

Chemosynthetic
An organism that synthesises organic matter using inorganic molecules or methane, rather than sunlight as in photosynthesis. Where ocean waters are high in sulphides, whole ecosystems can be built around chemosynthetic microorganisms.

External collaborators