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No. 90: Nov-Dec 1993

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Depths Of Ignorance

Oceanographers have been heard to complain that science knows more about the surface of Mars than it does about the topography of the deep ocean floors. Marine biologists, however, have even more reason to feel slighted. To illustrate, the usual picture painted of the abyssal terrain beyond the continental shelves and slopes is one a a frigid biological desert -- endless plains of sterile muck, broken once in a while by oasis-like deepsea vents, where weird tube worms thrive amidst clouds of chemosynthetic bacteria. This is a highly misleading portrayal.

The situation, in fact, recalls what happened when biologists first released clouds of insecticides in rain forest canopies, thus precipitating a deluge of uncataloged insects into collecting nets waiting below. Now, instead of a mere million species of insects worldwide, entomologists are thinking perhaps 10 million or more. Will the same diversity prevail in the deepsea muck? C.L. Van Dover believes so:

"Away from the vents, in the great ocean plains, life is much less dramatic and often scaled down to minute proportions -- threadlike worms, tiny snails, delicate, transparent clams. Yet, the diversity of animals in the cold abyssal muds, it now appears, may rival the celebrated biodiversity of the tropical rain forests."

We now know virtually nothing about this fauna, how it survives, and how it evolved. Millions of undescribed species may be awaiting discovery by research submersibles and deep dredging. (Van Dover, Cindy Lee; "Depths of Ignorance," Discover, 14:37, September 1993.)

Comment. Preconceptions about life and its talents have often blinded science as to the extent of life's domains. More revelations are sure to come when biologists begin looking at crevicular life -- those multitudinous species prospering in the earth's deep pores and crevices, where they draw energy from the earth's heat and chemicals.

From Science Frontiers #90, NOV-DEC 1993. 1993-2000 William R. Corliss