Do 'Extreme Shrimp' Hold the Keys to Alien Life?

Crustaceans found at one of the earth's deepest hydrothermal vents could indicate what kind of life might inhabit other planets.

(Photo: Courtesy Chris German/WHOI)

Nov 25, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

A colony of tiny shrimp are surviving and thriving some 16,000 feet below the ocean’s surface, thanks to the deepest heat-spewing hydrothermal vent on the planet.

It’s at this extremely remote location in the Caribbean that NASA scientists believe we could get the best glimpse of what life on other planets might look like.

Why? Because the thriving microbial ecosystem in such a harsh environment might be replicated elsewhere—such as on Jupiter’s icy moon Europa.

"For two-thirds of the Earth's history, life has existed only as microbial life," Max Coleman, senior research scientist at NASA, said in a statement. "On Europa, the best chance for life would be microbial."

Researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, are studying the shrimp that live around underwater vents. Their gills evolved to catch bacteria that emerge from the vents. The bacteria produce carbohydrates in the shrimp and serve as a food source for the whole colony.

It’s not an easy life. If the invertebrates, dubbed Rimicaris hybisae, huddle too close to the 750-degree water spewing from the vents, they’ll burn up. Venture too far away, and their food options become scarce. While researchers didn’t observe cannibalism among the shrimp, they did find bits of crustaceans in the specimen’s guts—and Rimicaris hybisae is the only crustacean around.

“It's a remarkable symbiotic system," said Coleman, a member of a team led by Chris German of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution that discovered the vents off Cuba in 2009.

The team sent a robotic vehicle to the vents in 2012 and 2013, when they discovered the shrimp.

“Whether an animal like this could exist on Europa heavily depends on the actual amount of energy that's released there, through hydrothermal vents," Emma Versteegh, a postdoctoral fellow at JPL, said in a statement.