(WJW) – Scientists discovered something unexpected near an underwater volcano — a whole new ecosystem of tiny critters was thriving beneath the hydrothermal vents.

According to the U.S. National Ocean Service, hydrothermal vents are hot springs that form when seawater meets magma from underwater volcanoes.

The water in these hydrothermal vents can reach temperatures as high as 700 degrees, NOAA says.

Scientists have known for years that some organisms that survive in extreme conditions can be found near these vents, but just recently they uncovered something just as surprising underneath.

  • An eelpout swims by a tower of tubeworms
  • Studying rock sample on board research vessel

While studying an undersea volcano on the East Pacific Rise off Central America, researchers with the Schmidt Ocean Institute used a robot to go down and turn over crust on the volcanic sea floor.

Underneath the hot springs, they found tunnel systems filled with worms, snails and bacteria living in waters around 75 degrees.

They also found proof that tubeworms colonize beneath the sea floor by traveling through vent fluid. It’s something that Dr. Monika Bright suspected since very few young tubeworms have been seen around the vents.

She says the discovery is a big break-through in understanding deep-sea animal life.

“Two dynamic vent habitats exist. Vent animals above and below the surface thrive together in unison, depending on vent fluid from below and oxygen in the seawater from above,” said Dr. Bright, who led the international expedition.   

Scientists will spend the upcoming months studying what they found.

Read more about the Schmidt Ocean Institute here.