NASA: Extreme shrimp may hold clues to alien life

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Chris German, WHOI/NSF, NASA/ROV Jason Shrimp called Rimicaris hybisae at deep hydrothermal vents in the Caribbean seem to have different dietary habits depending on the proximity of other shrimp. In dense clusters, the shrimp live moslty off bacteria, but when the shrimp population is sparse, they are more likely to turn carnivorous.

Shrimp crawling around rock chimneys spewing hot water deep in the Caribbean Sea may hold clues to the kinds of life that can thrive in extreme environments on other planets, NASA says.

The shrimp are called Rimicaris hybisae (no, we can’t pronounce it either). They live in clumps on hydrothermal vents 7,500 feet underwater, where temperatures reach 750 degrees Fahrenheit and it’s very, very dark.

The water near the vents is cool enough for the shrimp to live in. The very hot water spewing from the vents is where their dinner is cooked.

The shrimp dine on carbohydrates produced by bacteria living inside the vents. So what does that have to with space aliens? If these bacteria can survive in these extreme conditions of Earth, maybe it can happen on other worlds, such as Jupiter’s icy moon Europa, which has a subsurface ocean.

“For two-thirds of the Earth’s history, life has existed only as microbial life,” said Max Coleman, senior research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “On Europa, the best chance for life would be microbial.”

“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.

So the shrimp eat stuff cranked out by the bacteria — but what do the bacteria eat?

Scientists say they get their energy by using chemical reactions; since hydrogen sulfide is abundant in the vents, they use it to make organic matter.

What happens to the shrimp when they can’t find any bacteria to produce carbs for them? They turn into carnivores, maybe even cannibals. Researchers say they found bits of crustaceans in the shrimps’ guts and guess which crustacean is in big supply in the area? Rimicaris hybisae.

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