Marine Lab Researchers Explore Newly Discovered Deep-Sea Hydrothermal Vents

January 5, 2012

Tim Lucas, 919-613-8084,

DURHAM, N.C. – A trio of researchers from the Duke University Marine Lab sets sail today for a nearly monthlong expedition to explore newly discovered hydrothermal vents along the Mid-Cayman Rise, Earth’s deepest and one of its most slowly spreading mid-ocean ridges.

You can follow the expedition online at

Cindy L. Van Dover, director of the Duke Marine Lab and Harvey Smith Professor of Biological Oceanography at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, leads the at-sea Duke team. 

Joining her aboard the R/V Atlantis are post-doctoral researcher Sophie Plouviez and first-year PhD student Jameson Clarke.

The Duke trio will study invertebrate biogeography and population genetics at the hydrothermal vents. They are part of an international team of scientists taking part in the expedition, which is funded by the National Science Foundation and NASA.

Due to its relative geographic isolation, the Mid-Cayman Rise is a unique environment in the world's oceans.  Located in the Cayman Trough – the deepest point in the Caribbean Sea – the rise is part of the tectonic boundary between the North American Plate and the Caribbean Plate.  As the plates are pulled apart, new material wells up from Earth's interior to form new crust on the seafloor.  The extreme conditions found at vent sites along the rise support communities of organisms that live far from the ocean’s surface and thrive without conventional sources of energy like sunlight.  These environments may hold geologic, biologic and chemical clues to the origins and evolution of life on Earth, and help scientists prepare for future efforts to explore for life on other planets. 

Scientists aboard the R/V Atlantis will explore and collect samples at the hydrothermal vents using the deep-diving, remotely operated research vehicle Jason.

Onshore support is being provided by members of the Duke Marine Lab’s Deep-Sea Lab, including lab manager and associate in research Bernie Ball, and PhD students Andrew Thaler, David Honig, Megumi Shimizu and Abigail Labella.  Cliff Cunningham of Duke’s Department of Biology is also providing onshore support.  Tom Schultz, director of the Marine Lab’s Marine Conservation Molecular Facility, and Jens Carlssen, adjunct assistant professor, are co-principal investigators of the invertebrate biogeography/populations genetics project, which is funded by NASA.

Chris German of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is chief scientist on the R/V Atlantisexpedition.  A full list of participants and their research projects can be found

The Mid-Cayman Rise’s hydrothermal vents were first discovered two years ago.  The discovery was aided by scientists working aboard the R/V Hatteras, a National Science Foundation research vessel that is based at the Duke Marine Lab in Beaufort, N.C., and operated by the Duke/University of North Carolina Oceanographic Consortium.