Many of the animals living at hydrothermal vents and cold seeps carry chemosynthetic bacterial symbionts in their body, which convert methane or hydrogen sulfide into food. Some have lost the ability to feed on anything other than what the bacteria living inside their tissues provide them. Almost all cannot survive without a sufficient supply of methane or hydrogen sulfide. One hypothesis is that decomposing organic matter that has sunk from the surface, like whale carcasses, seaweed, and wood could serve as a food source, providing stepping stones between vents or seeps.
|A field of mussels at a cold seep (photo Wikipedia)|
|A whale skeleton in the deep sea with patrolling hagfish (photo Wikipedia)|
Researchers tested this idea by depositing wood logs on the Eastern Mediterranean seafloor at 1700 meters down and returned a year later to examine the animals and bacteria the had colonised the wood. They also measured the chemicals in the water released by the bacteria breaking down the wood. Using underwater robots, they observed that wood-boring bivalves had indeed broken the wood into smaller pieces, which were further broken down by other organisms.
The activity of the organisms digesting the wood reduced the amount of dissolved oxygen, resulting in anoxic conditions that allowed sulfate-reducing bacteria to move in and produce hydrogen sulfide. The hydrogen sulfide then attracted a species of mussel, which usually found at cold seeps where it gains energy from symbiotic chemosynthetic bacteria. The mussels seemed to preferentially colonise cavities under the bark of the wood, presumably because sulfide levels were higher there.
|The chemosynthetic mussel Idas modiolaeformis was found in the sunken wood piles (photo from Bienhold et al. 2013)|
|A hypothetical succession of animals on submerged wood in the deep sea over a year. Initially wood-boring bivalves move in, followed by predators and detritus feeders (e.g. polychaetes and sipunculids). The respiration of the colonisers creates anoxic niches that allow the chemosynthetic mussels to move in (diagram from Bienhold et al. 2013).|
Bienhold, C., Pop Ristova, P., Wenzhöfer, F., Dittmar, T., & Boetius, A. (2013). How Deep-Sea Wood Falls Sustain Chemosynthetic Life PLoS ONE, 8 (1) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0053590