Crabs Under Pressure

By Hannah Hoag | 06.17.12 2:13 PM

Crabs Under Pressure

The Abyss Box brings deep-ocean dwellers up to sea-and eye-level.

Unless you're James Cameron, you've probably never seen a Mirocarisfortunate - a shrimp that lives in the hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean. Or a little white crab named Segonzacia mesatlantica. That's because these deep-sea species can't survive in a standard aquarium-normal atmospheric pressure will kill them. Luckily, one of Europe's largest aquariums, Oceanopolis, in Brest. France, has developed a solution: a unique high-pressure viewing cabinet called the AbyssBox. Visitors can now stare into the 4.25-gallon display and see the kinds of deep-dwelling sea fauna you used to have to spend a Titanic-sized budget to glimpse. Here's how it works.


The AbyssBox was inspired by deep submersibles-but with the water inside. It uses a system of pumps and valves to create a crushing 180 atmospheres of pressure - imagine an elephant standing on your fingernail. The force pushes against the cone-shaped window, forming a tight seal. The temperature is kept at 50 degrees Fahrenheit, while a thin stream of 86-degree water shoots along the base to mimic a hydrothermal vent.


An air-lock-like column delivers food into the tank without breaking the pressure. The scavengers used to favor dead vent mussels, but now they tuck into fresh blue mussels-easier to find in Brittany.


Shrimp and crab-like the S. mesat/antica shown above-were plucked from the Lucky Strike vent field just south of the Azores, nearly 6,000 feet down. For now the hearty crustaceans are the only tenant s. Most creatures of the deep can survive only a few hours at sea level (the drop in pressure messes up cell-to-cell communication and causes paralysis), and any decompressioncan be fatal. But AbyssBox inventor Bruce Shillito, a biophysicist at the Universite Pierre et Marie Curie in Paris, has devised a new tool that will allow sea animals to be captured, brought to the surface, and transferred into an Abyss Box, all at a constant pressure. So you might be able to make eye contact with the deep-sea anglerfish before Cameron names himself king of the underworld.