Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

DEEPSEA SOUND: pioneer explorations into biological relevance and anthropogenic disturbance

Are there acoustic cues for settlement stage larvae in deep-sea soundscapes around hydrothermal vents?

2020 - 2024
Hans Slabbekoorn


The deep-sea is a unique and largely unexplored environment, with likely still many hidden treasures in terms of biodiversity and unique habitats of ecological value and mineral and energy resources of economic value. An interesting feature of specific areas in the deep-sea is the occurrence of hydrothermal vents: volcanic fissures on the ocean floor that erupt geothermally heated fluids.

Blue fish at the bottom of the ocean at more than 2 km depth.
Blue fish at the bottom of the ocean at more than 2 km depth.

There is a surprising diversity of animal species around these vent systems that only thrive in the specific circumstances of extreme temperatures and chemistry. The deep-sea is a dark environment in which the role of vision is restricted to bioluminescence and where there are more prominent roles for sensory cues in terms of smell and sound. Especially the latter is likely to play a critical role in communication and orientation for animals of the deep-sea.

Sound propagates well underwater and sound generation by natural sources potentially provides cues for dispersal and settlement for adult individuals and pelagic larvae from a wide variety of taxa. Also hydrothermal vents are known to generate sounds, although we still know very little and only few recordings exist.

In the meantime, noise pollution has entered the deep-sea already (e.g. container shipping), while new acoustic threats are on the rise (e.g. deep-sea mining). Noise pollution could therefore cause problems for the biological function of sound in this unique and hardly explored ecosystem.

Hydrophone on its way down to a depth of more than 2 km.
Hydrophone on its way down to a depth of more than 2 km.

In this project, we will describe the deep-sea soundscapes around and away from hydrothermal vents, including natural variation in spectral and temporal patterns, as well as the presence and potential impact of noise pollution by human activities. We will also test the biological relevance of these underwater soundscapes in the deep-sea through a combination of on-board and in situ behavioural response studies, using state-of-the-art bioacoustic technology.

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