Shrimp have taken over one of the most inhospitable places on Earth — at the bottom of the Caribbean Sea. Down there, the environment is so extreme that scientists think it could resemble conditions on Jupiter’s watery moon, Europa.
This begs the question: Do alien shrimp exist?
Living under such unwelcoming conditions comes at great cost: These shrimp are blind and sometimes eat each other when food is scarce.
Only first discovered in 2012, the shrimp are not well understood. But last November, a team of scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory made some surprising discoveries while studying the shrimp to better understand how life might exist on other celestial bodies in the solar system — in particular, Europa.
Their secret to survival
These shrimp live four miles beneath the water’s surface, where they endure bone-crushing pressures, frigid temperatures, and eternal darkness. Yet, these extreme, thumb-sized shrimp are thriving, which is what makes them some of the likeliest candidates to survive on Europa.
Their secret to survival is the hydrothermal vents peaking out from the seafloor. Some of the deepest in the world, these vents are produced by underwater volcanoes that spew boiling-hot water and sulfuric acid into the surrounding environment.
They live and feed off this sulfuric acid, because they have bacteria inside their mouths and gills that digest it. These bacteria are crucial to the shrimp’s survival in the absence of sunlight — the bacteria convert the sulfuric acid into organic matter that then feeds the shrimp.
You can see the shrimp swarming along these vents in the image below — they remain close enough to the vents openings to access the sulfuric acid but far enough away so they avoid too high of a dose, which would be poisonous and potentially fatal.
Since they live where sunlight cannot penetrate, the shrimp have no need for eyes and are therefore blind. Instead, they have receptors on the back of their heads that measure changes in water temperature to help them navigate their surroundings, and, if needed, find their way closer to the hot vents.
These shrimp, called Rimicaris hybisae, have only been observed to live along these vents at the bottom of the Caribbean sea. Sometimes they will gather in groups as large as 180 shrimp per square foot.
Europa has an icy shell on the surface, but underneath is a vast ocean of salt water. Although Europa’s ocean receives no sunlight, the moon has tectonic plates that likely warm the moons oceans and create hydrothermal vents like those at the bottom of Earth’s oceans.
“Whether an animal like this could exist on Europa heavily depends on the actual amount of energy that’s released there, through hydrothermal vents,” said Emma Versteegh, a postdoctoral fellow at JPL, in a NASA statement.
While studying the shrimp, the JPL scientists discovered something morbid. Traditionally, these shrimp survive on the organic matter their local bacteria provide, but when the going gets tough, these shrimp will eat anything around, even each other.
Check out a video describing the JPL scientists’ study with more amazing footage of these crazy, extreme little shrimpies:
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