Philosophical Society of Washington

Beyond The Edge of the Sea:

Volcanoes and Life in the Deep Ocean

Cindy L. Van Dover
College of William and Mary

2197th Meeting Abstract
Friday, November 18, 2005 at 8:15 PM


When Rachel Carson wrote of marine life in The Edge of the Sea, life beyond the edge was nearly unfathomable. William Beebe had dived to shallow depths in the Bathysphere to view what he called the “Society of Wonders” in the 1930's, but exploration of the deep ocean, far beyond the edge of the sea, was a frontier of science in the mid 1900s. While our deep-sea explorations can never rival the political and societal import of the discoveries made during the great era of ocean exploration led by Portuguese navigators in the 15th century, they are revealing much about how the Earth works and about the extreme conditions where life may be found.

Even now the deep sea remains a vast, unexplored wilderness. But unlike 50 years ago, we have access to this deep frontier. Technologies for studying ecosystems beyond the edge of the sea are rapidly developing: we can design sophisticated experiments, gather terabytes of observatory information, and undertake programs that once seemed the provenance of outer space. As testimony to the future of ocean exploration and a commitment to improving our access to the abyss, the United States is once again engaged in the construction of a new, state-of-the-art deep-sea research submersible.

Deep-Diving Research Submersible Alvin The existing American deep-diving research vessel, Alvin, is now veteran of more than 4000 dives, and is of a vintage that goes back to the era of the spaceship Friendship VII. Alvin has ferried generations of scientists to and from the abyss and is responsible for a record number of scientific discoveries in the deep sea. Of these, none so far surpasses the discovery of the active deep-sea volcanoes – the mid-ocean ridges – that girdle the globe, and their concomitant hydrothermal systems. Giant tubeworms are the textbook hydrothermal vent animals of the Pacific Ocean, truly awesome in their match of anatomy and physiology to their extreme environment. Giant Tube Worm In the Atlantic, it is the vent shrimp that are most compelling. With novel eyes, they lead us to look more closely at the world as they might see, revealing to us a dim, geothermal source of light in the deep ocean that may guide their navigation. We have learned that vent faunas are different in different ocean basins and that we can expect to find undescribed species with as yet unimagined adaptations as we continue our explorations. These organisms will lead us to new therapeutic and other wise useful biological agents as bioprospecting of marine (genetic) resources in the deep sea advances.

There are immense stretches of mid-ocean ridge and hundreds of islands of hydrothermal activity that lie in unexplored oceans. We are poised on the brink of discovery and knowledge, beyond the edge of the sea.

Cindy Lee Van Dover

About the Author:

Cindy Lee Van Dover is a deep-sea biologist with an interest in the ecology of chemosynthetic ecosystems. She began her work in this field in 1982, joining the first biological expedition to hydrothermal vents on the East Pacific Rise. Earning a Master's degree in ecology from UCLA in 1985, she continued her graduate education in the MIT/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Joint Program in Biological Oceanography. There she joined numerous expeditions and published on diverse topics such as reproductive strategies and recruitment of vent invertebrates, vent food webs, and taxonomic descriptions of new species. In 1989 she described a novel photoreceptor in a vent invertebrate, which in turn led to discovery and characterization of a geothermal source of light at vents and investigations of its biological significance.

On receiving her Ph.D. in 1989, Van Dover joined the group that operates the deep-diving submersible Alvin. She qualified as pilot in 1990 and was pilot-in command of 48 dives. Her work with Alvin has taken her to nearly all of the known vent fields in the Atlantic and Pacific, as well as to deep-water sea mounts, seeps and other significant seafloor features. Van Dover has published more than 70 articles in peer-reviewed journals and is an active participant and frequent chief scientist in NSF- and NOAA-sponsored field programs to hydrothermal vents. Her current research focuses primarily on the study of biodiversity and biogeography of vent faunas and invertebrate functional anatomy.

In addition to research, Van Dover has authored a popular book for the lay audience about the deep sea and her experiences as an Alvin pilot (Deep-Ocean Journeys; Addison-Wesley, 1997, a.k.a. The Octopus's Garden). She is also the author of the first textbook on hydrothermal vents (The Ecology of Deep-Sea Hydrothermal Vents; Princeton University Press, 2000).

Van Dover was a recent Fulbright Scholar in France and is an Associate Professor in the Biology Department at The College of William & Mary.

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