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Weird Clutch of Eggs Found in One of the Most Inhospitable Places on Earth

The animals that laid them used hydrothermal vents as incubators.

Strange conditions in the murkiest depths of the ocean have led to the evolution of weird-looking animals that sometimes look like dicks but are, impressively, able to thrive in uniquely severe environments. One of the oddest and most inhospitable of these habitats is the area surrounding underwater volcanoes known as black smokers, which spew forth hot jets of chemicals from the Earth’s mantle that can reach temperatures of 650º-750º Fahrenheit. Scientists know that some hardy organisms rely on these chemical feasts to thrive, but they only recently realized that the searing heat from those vents might be crucial to their survival as well.

In a paper published Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports, an international team of scientists led by Pelayo Salinas-de-León, Ph.D. report an especially unusual discovery: that Pacific white skates (Bathyraja spinosissima), relatives of sharks that grow to have a wingspan of up to five feet, lay their eggs around hydrothermal vents in the Iguanas-Pinguinos vent field, about one mile below the sea just north of the Galápagos Islands.

Pacific white skates can live up to 10,000 feet below the surface of the sea.

While the fossil record has shown that dinosaurs laid eggs in volcanic soil, just like the still-living megapode, a ground-dwelling bird that lays its eggs in mounds of heat-generating, decomposing matter in Asia and Australia, this report marks the first time anyone has observed this behavior in a marine animal.

Scientists found egg cases between three feet and 450 feet from hydrothermal vents.

Pacific white skates are wide, flat fish that can live up to 10,000 feet below the surface of the ocean. What makes this species especially unique is that their eggs take a really long time to hatch: Researchers estimate that these eggs incubate for 1,500 days — more than four years. Laying the eggs around these deep-sea vents, the researchers hypothesize, could help shorten the time it takes for the eggs to hatch.

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This image, taken from the ROV's POV, shows skate eggs around a hydrothermal chimney.

Since the hydrothermal vents of the Galápagos Marine Reserve are so deep underwater, the researchers had to use a remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV) to explore what life could thrived there. Using the camera on the ROV, as well as a robotic arm that can gently manipulate objects, they observed the scene and collected four samples to confirm the species. In total, they found 157 egg cases, each about four inches long. Many of the cases were fresh, suggesting that the site was an active incubation area.

Deep-sea hydrothermal vents, known as black smokers, host a wide range of life, including skate eggs.

With the ROV’s camera, they also observed a bunch of older egg cases, indicating that skates had been laying their eggs around these vents for quite some time.

Even with the help of the hydrothermal vents, the water is still quite cold way down there — only a few degrees above freezing. So it makes sense that the skates are taking advantage of this environmental freebie.

Researchers collected four egg cases to confirm the species.

Aside from being a startlingly strange find, documenting this phenomenon could assist conservation efforts in the future, as these deep-sea hydrothermal vents could soon be under threat. While it seems like something a mile under the ocean should be safe from human hinderance, they’ve recently become a target for mining companies hoping to extract methane or harvest the geothermal energy.

“We hardly know anything about the deep sea, and we are fishing, and mining, before we even get a chance to even document what species live down there and what unique behaviors [they] could reveal [to] us,” Salinas-de-León told National Geographic in an interview this month. Perhaps learning that these vents not only host the crabs and worms that we already knew about but also serve as nurseries for these strange and beautiful skates will teach us to be a little more hesitant to decimate these habitats for our own gain.

Abstract: The discovery of deep-sea hydrothermal vents in 1977 challenged our views of ecosystem functioning and yet, the research conducted at these extreme and logistically challenging environments still continues to reveal unique biological processes. Here, we report for the first time, a unique behavior where the deep-sea skate, Bathyraja spinosissima, appears to be actively using the elevated temperature of a hydrothermal vent environment to naturally “incubate” developing egg-cases. We hypothesize that this behavior is directly targeted to accelerate embryo development time given that deep-sea skates have some of the longest egg incubation times reported for the animal kingdom. Similar egg incubating behavior, where eggs are incubated in volcanically heated nesting grounds, have been recorded in Cretaceous sauropod dinosaurs and the rare avian megapode. To our knowledge, this is the first time incubating behavior using a volcanic source is recorded for the marine environment.

Media via Wikimedia, Ocean Exploration Trust, Ocean Exploration Trust: Julye Newlin, Salinas-de-León et al.

Steve Irwin: He Gave Attention to One of Nature's Saltiest Big Boys

The endangered saltwater crocodile received a helping hand from Irwin.

The late icon of conservation Steve “The Crocodile Hunter” Irwin would have been 57 years old on Friday, and Google chose the day to mark his extraordinary life with a touching Google Doodle slideshow. Irwin was deeply involved with animals, reptiles especially, from an early age, as his parents ran a reptile park when was a child in Australia.

Steve Irwin Is Still Protecting Animals Worldwide, 13 Years After His Death

The Crocodile Hunter's legacy lives on in thousands of acres of protected land.

In 2004, the late conservationist Steve Irwin caught a lot of heat for feeding a crocodile while simultaneously holding his baby. The incident captured his lifelong approach to animal conservation, which began with his animal-filled childhood and continues even after his death with the conservationist legacy he left behind. Irwin’s 57th birthday would have been on Friday, and he was commemorated with a front-page Google Doodle.

Steve Irwin: How He Rose to Fame as the Crocodile Hunter

Google paid tribute to the star.

Google commemorated the life of Steve Irwin on Friday with a homepage doodle on what would have been the Australian’s 57th birthday. Irwin became a household name through his animal activism and television appearances, first launching onto screens of Animal Planet viewers with his show The Crocodile Hunter.

Irwin was born in the Essendon near Melbourne in 1962 to parents Lyn and Bob Irwin. His parents famously gave him an 11-foot scrub python for his 6th birthday which he named Fred. The young Steve learned a lot from his parents about animals, and they laid the foundations for Beerwah Reptile Park when they bought some land in 1970. Steve learned to wrestle crocodiles from the age of 9, and helped manage the family-owned park. The park was renamed Queensland Reptile and Fauna Park, and in 1990, it was renamed Australia Zoo — the same year Steve met producer John Stainton. He met his future wife, Oregonian Terri Raines, when she was visiting the park the following year. Their croc-filled honeymoon in 1992 formed the first episode of The Crocodile Hunter.

The Incredible Science Behind This Self-Warming, Self-Cooling Bed

Eight Sleep’s new bed will make tossing and turning a thing of the past.

Filed Under Data

Sleep tracking can unquestionably help you establish better habits which allow for a more restful night’s sleep. By keeping track of the nights that you toss and turn, you can identify potential explanations for your sub-optimal slumber. Maybe it’s the time of week that’s got you anxious. Maybe it was the cheeseburger you had for lunch. Paying attention is just the start, though.

The 'Stoned Ape' Theory Might Explain Our Extraordinary Evolution

A scientist resurfaces a psychedelic retelling of human evolution.

Imagine Homo erectus, a now-extinct species of hominids that stood upright and became the first of our ancestors to move beyond a single continent. Around two million years ago, these hominids, some of whom eventually evolved into Homo sapiens, began to expand their range beyond Africa, moving into Asia and Europe. Along the way, they tracked animals, encountered dung, and discovered new plants.