Deep sea

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This article describes the habitat of the deep sea. It is one of the sub-categories within the section dealing with biodiversity of marine habitats and ecosystems. It gives an overview about the characteristics, the bottom topography, the adaptations to the environment of the biota and the threats.


The deep sea floor represents the largest habitat on earth. It ranges from the edge of the continental shelf at 200m to the bottom of the ocean. At the edge of the continental shelf is the shelf break, where the gradient of the floor increases down the continental slope. Below the '''continental slope''' lies the continental rise, which has a more gently slope. At around 4,000 meters depth, the ocean floor is reached and extends over the ocean basins at depths of 5,000 meters on average. This is called the abyssal plain. The zone between the continental shelf and the abyssal plain is the bathyal zone. In some places, the sea floor drops again into elongated trenches with depths of 10 to 11 kilometers. This region is the hadal region. The ocean floor is interrupted by mountain chain known as the mid-oceanic ridge system. Other features on the ocean floor are seamounts and hydrothermal vents. [1]

Ocean zones [2]


The temperature of the waters of the deep sea varies from 4°C to -1°C. Exceptions are the Mediterranean Sea with an average temperature of 13°C in the upper 4,000 meters and the Red Sea where the bottom water can reach temperatures up to 21.5°C at depths of 2,000 meters. The lowest temperatures are found in the Antarctic Ocean and are about -1.9°C. The salinity of the seawater is relatively constant. Below 2,000 meters, the salinity is close to 35 ‰ (34.8‰ ± 0.3 ‰) and at the very deepest layers it is 34.65‰. The oxygen concentrations are near saturation except in the oxygen minimum layer between 0.5 and 0.6 kilometers depth. In enclosed basins such as the Black Sea, the water is anoxic below 250 meters. When the deep water is further from its origin the oxygen concentration declines by metabolic processes. This is e.g. the case in the deep North Pacific. The most predictable physical variable is hydrostatic pressure. Per 10 meter the depth increases, the pressure increases by 1 atmosphere ([math]10^5[/math] Pa). [3] In the deep ocean, light is almost absent. It is a dark environment and the organisms are adapted to it. The circulation in the deep sea is explained in the article ocean circulation. The deep sea bottom has some specific characteristics that can be found in the article about deep sea bottom.

On the deep-sea floor, many mounds and depressions are formed by benthic animals such as worms, mollusks, crustaceans, starfish, brittlestars, shrimps, fishes sea cucumbers ans sea urchins.

Riftia with associated animals [4]
Hydrothermal communities may be hundreds of times more abundant than on the adjacent sea floor. This is because the animals have their own rich source of food. This food source is totally independent of the input from the photosynthesizing plants in the overlying surface waters. Organisms that can be found in association with these vents are bacteria, mussels, cockles, oysters, sea anemones, shrimps, crabs, fish and tube worms. An example of a tube worm is Riftia pachyptila. It has a red plume of gills sticking out of the top of the worm’s white tube. They are also found around cold hydrocarbon seeps. It has no mouth or gut and it has special chemosynthetic bacteria in the tissues of its body called the trophosome. The chemicals that the bacteria need are delivered by the blood of the worm. [5]

Cold seeps have a lower metazoan biodiversity but a higher productivity. This is because of the high biomass of megabenthic organisms. The communities are often dominated by the bivalves that have symbiontic relationships with chemosynthetic bacteria. Organisms that can be found here are tube worms, bivalves, crabs, anemones and soft corals. An example of an organism is the vesicomyid clam that has a symbiontic relationship with sulfur oxidizing bacteria.

Seamounts have high concentrations of plankton. Also fishes are abundant, because of the high concentration of plankton and the constant influx of prey organisms. Marine mammals such as sharks, tuna and cephalopods all congregate over the seamounts to fee. Even seabirds have been shown to be more abundant in the zones with shallow seamounts.


Human activities can cause serious damage to the deep sea. Examples of human activities that have a negative impact are [6]:

  • Fishing activities: overfishing, destructive practices and illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing activities (IUU)
  • Bycath or incidental mortality of non-target species
  • Noise pollution such as powerful sonar systems and airguns
  • Shipping: noise, accidental spills of oil, discharge of garbage, oily wastes, sewage, chemical residues and ballast water, anti-fouling products
  • Submarine cables and pipelines
  • pollution
  • Climate change and ozone depletion


  1. Kaiser M. et al. 2005. Marine ecology: Processes, systems and impacts. Oxford University Press. p.584
  2. ocean_zones.jpg
  3. Gage J.D. and Tyler P.A. 1991. Deep-sea biology – A natural history of organisms at the deep-sea floor. Cambridge University Press. p. 504
  4. NOAA
  5. Rice T. 2000. Deep Ocean. The natural history museum, London. p. 96
  6. UNEP Regional Seas Report and Studies No.178. 2006. Ecosystems and Biodiversity in Deep Waters and High Seas. p. 60

The main author of this article is TÖPKE, Katrien
Please note that others may also have edited the contents of this article.

Citation: TÖPKE, Katrien (2008): Deep sea. Available from [accessed on 18-08-2019]