Abyssal zone

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The abyssal zone or abyssopelagic zone is a layer of the pelagic zone of the ocean. The word abyss comes from the Greek word ἄβυσσος (ábussos), meaning "bottomless".[1] At depths of 4,000–6,000 m (13,000–20,000 ft),[2] this zone remains in perpetual darkness.[3][4] It covers 83% of the total area of the ocean and 60% of Earth's surface.[5] The abyssal zone has temperatures around 2–3 °C (36–37 °F) through the large majority of its mass.[3] The water pressure can reach up to 76 MPa (750 atm; 11,000 psi).

Due to there being no light, there are no plants producing oxygen, which instead primarily comes from ice that had melted long ago from the polar regions. The water along the seafloor of this zone is actually devoid of oxygen, resulting in a death trap for organisms unable to quickly return to the oxygen-enriched water above or survive in the low-oxygen environment. This region also contains a much higher concentration of nutrient salts, like nitrogen, phosphorus, and silica, due to the large amount of dead organic material that drifts down from the above ocean zones and decomposes.[3]

The area below the abyssal zone is the sparsely inhabited hadal zone.[1] The zone above is the bathyal zone.[1]


Layers of the pelagic zone

The deep trenches or fissures that plunge down thousands of meters below the ocean floor (for example, the mid-oceanic trenches such as the Mariana Trench in the Pacific) are almost unexplored.[6] Previously, only the bathyscaphe Trieste, the remote control submarine Kaikō and the Nereus have been able to descend to these depths.[7][8] However, as of March 25, 2012 one vehicle, the Deepsea Challenger was able to penetrate to a depth of 10,898.4 meters (35,756 ft).


The relative sparsity of primary producers means that the majority of organisms living in the abyssal zone depend on the marine snow that falls from oceanic layers above. The biomass of the abyssal zone actually increases near the seafloor as most of the decomposing material and decomposers rest on the seabed.[9]

The composition of the abyssal plain depends on the depth of the sea floor. Above 4000 meters the seafloor usually consists of calcareous shells of foraminifera, zooplankton, and phytoplankton. At depths greater than 4000 meters shells dissolve, leaving behind a seafloor of brown clay and silica from dead zooplankton and phytoplankton.[3] Chemosynthetic bacteria support large and diverse communities near hydrothermal vents, filling a similar role in these ecosystems as plants do in the sunlit regions above.[10]

Biological adaptations[edit]

Organisms that live at this depth have had to evolve to overcome challenges provided by the abyssal zone. Fish and invertebrates had to evolve to withstand the sheer cold and intense pressure found at this level. They also had to not only find ways to hunt and survive in constant darkness but to thrive in an ecosystem that has less oxygen and biomass, energy sources or prey, than the upper zones. To survive in a region with so few resources and low temperatures, many fish and other organisms developed a much slower metabolism and require much less oxygen than those in upper zones. Many animals also move very slowly to conserve energy. Their reproduction rates are also very slow, to decrease competition and conserve energy. Animals here typically have flexible stomachs and mouths so that when scarce prey are found they can consume as many as possible.[10]

A dense gathering of Rimicaris hybisae shrimp at the Beebe Hydrothermal Vent Field in the Mid-Cayman Rise. The shrimp are almost entirely blind, surviving at the interface of cold, deep seawater and supercritical hydrothermal fluid.[11]

Other challenges faced by life in the abyssal zone are the pressure and darkness caused by the zone’s depth. Many organisms living in this zone have evolved to minimize internal air spaces, such as swim bladders. This adaptation helps to protect them from the extreme pressure, which can reach around 75 MPa (11,000 psi). The absence of light also spawned many different adaptations, such as having large eyes or the ability to produce their own light (bioluminescence). Large eyes would allow the detection and use of any light available, no matter how small.[3] Commonly, animals in the abyssal zone are bioluminescent, producing blue light, because the blue wavelength of light is attenuated over greater travel distances than other wave lengths. [12] Due to this lack of light, complex designs and bright colors are not needed. Most fish species have evolved to be transparent, red, or black so they better blend in with the darkness and don't waste energy on developing and maintaining bright or complex designs.[3]


The abyssal zone is made up of many different types of organisms, including microorganisms, crustaceans, molluscan (bivalves, snails, and cephalopods), different classes of fishes, and possibly some animals that have yet to be discovered. Most of the fish species in this zone are characterized as demersal or benthopelagic fishes. Demersal fishes are a term that refers to fishes whose habitats are on or near (typically less than five meters from) the seafloor. Most fish species fit into that classification because the seafloor contains most of the abyssal zone’s nutrients; therefore, the most complex food web or greatest biomass would be in this region of the zone.

Organisms in the abyssal zone rely on the natural processes of higher ocean layers. When animals from higher ocean levels die, their carcasses occasionally drift down to the abyssal zone, where organisms in the deep can feed on them. When a whale carcass falls down to the abyssal zone, this is called a whale fall. The carcass of the whale can create complex ecosystems for organisms in the depths.[7]

Benthic organisms in the abyssal zone would need to have evolved morphological traits that could either keep them out of oxygen-depleted water above the sea floor or enable them to extract oxygen from the water above, while also allowing the animal access to the seafloor and the nutrients located there.[13] There are also animals that spend their time in the upper portion of the abyssal zone, some of which even occasionally spend time in the zone directly above, the bathyal zone. While there are a number of different fish species representing many different groups and classes, like Actinopterygii (ray-finned fish), there are no known members of the class Chondrichthyes (animals such as sharks, rays, and chimaeras) that make the abyssal zone their primary or constant habitat. Whether this is due to the limited resources, energy availability, or other physiological constraints is unknown. Most Chondrichthyes species only go as deep as the bathyal zone.[14]      

  • Tripod fish (Bathypterois grallator): Their habitat is along the ocean floor, usually around 4,720 m below sea level. Their pelvic fins and caudal fin have long bony rays protruding from them. They face the current while standing still on their long rays. Once they sense food nearby, they use their large pectoral fins to hit the unsuspecting prey towards their mouth. Each member of this species has both male and female reproductive organs so that if a mate cannot be found, they can self fertilize.
  • Dumbo octopus: This octopus usually lives at a depth between 3,000 to 4,000 meters, deeper than any other known octopus. They use the fins on top of their head, which look like flapping ears, to hover over the sea floor looking for food. They use their arms to help change directions or crawl along the seafloor. To combat the intense pressure of the abyssal zone, this octopus species lost its ink sac during evolution. They also use their strand-like structured suction cups to help detect predators, food, and other aspects of their environment.
  • Cusk eel (Genus Bassozetus): There are no known fish that live at depths greater than the cusk eel. The depth of the cusk eel habitat can be as great as 8,370 meters below sea level. This animal's ventral fins are specialized forked barbel-like organs that act as sensory organs. Cusk eels produce sounds to mate. Male cusk eels have two pairs of sonic muscles, while female cusk eels have three.[8]
  • Abyssal grenadier: This resident of the abyssal zone is known to live at a depth ranging from 800 and 4,000 meters. It has extremely large eyes, but a small mouth. It is thought to be a semelparous species, meaning it only reproduces once and then dies after. This is seen as a way for the organism to conserve energy and have a higher chance of having some healthy strong children. This reproductive strategy could be very useful in low energy environments such as the abyssal zone.
  • Pseudoliparis swirei: the Mariana snailfish or Mariana hadal snailfish, is a species of snailfish found at hadal depths in the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific Ocean. It is known from a depth range of 6,198–8,076 m (20,335–26,496 ft), including a capture at 7,966 m (26,135 ft), which is possibly the record for a fish caught on the seafloor.

Environmental concerns[edit]

Climate change has had negative effects on the abyssal zone. Due to the zone’s depth, increasing global temperatures do not affect it as quickly or drastically as the rest of the world, but the zone is still afflicted by ocean acidification. Pollutants, such as plastics, are also present in this zone. Plastics are especially bad for the abyssal zone due to the fact that these organisms have evolved to eat or try to eat anything that moves or appears to be detritus, resulting in organisms consuming plastics instead of nutrients. Both ocean acidification and pollution are decreasing the already small biomass that resides within the abyssal zone.

Another problem caused by humans is overfishing. Even though no fishery can fish for organisms anywhere near the abyssal zone, they can still cause harm in deeper waters. The abyssal zone depends on dead organisms from the upper zones sinking to the seafloor, since the ecosystem lacks producers due to a lack of sunlight. As fish and other animals are removed from the ocean, the frequency and amount of dead material reaching the abyssal zone decreases.

Deep sea mining operations could pose an issue to the abyssal zone in the future. The talks and planning for this industry are already underway. Deep sea mining could be disastrous for this extremely fragile ecosystem since there are many ecological dangers posed by mining for deep sea minerals. Mining could increase the amount of pollution in not only the abyssal zone, but in the ocean as a whole, and would physically destroy habitats and the seafloor. [4]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c "Abyssal". Dictionary.com. Archived from the original on 18 April 2009. Retrieved 2009-04-27.
  2. ^ "Bathypelagic zone". Layers of the ocean. National Weather Service. Retrieved 2021-12-20.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Nelson R (October 2013). "Deep Sea Biome". Untamed Science. Archived from the original on 31 March 2009. Retrieved 2009-04-27.
  4. ^ a b Drazen JC, Sutton TT (January 2017). "Dining in the Deep: The Feeding Ecology of Deep-Sea Fishes". Annual Review of Marine Science. 9 (1): 337–366. Bibcode:2017ARMS....9..337D. doi:10.1146/annurev-marine-010816-060543. PMID 27814034.
  5. ^ "Interesting Facts About The Abyssal Zone". sciencestruck.com. 24 September 2014. Retrieved 2020-12-25.
  6. ^ Nelson R (April 2007). "Abyssal". The Wild Classroom. Archived from the original on 25 March 2009. Retrieved 2009-04-27.
  7. ^ a b "History of the Bathyscaph Trieste". Bathyscaphtrieste.com. Retrieved 2009-04-27.
  8. ^ a b "World's deepest-diving submarine missing". USA Today. Gannett Company Inc. 2 July 2003. Retrieved 2009-04-27.
  9. ^ Linardich, C; Keith, DA (2020). "M2.4 Abyssopelagic ocean waters". In Keith, D.A.; Ferrer-Paris, J.R.; Nicholson, E.; Kingsford, R.T. (eds.). The IUCN Global Ecosystem Typology 2.0: Descriptive profiles for biomes and ecosystem functional groups. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN. doi:10.2305/IUCN.CH.2020.13.en. ISBN 978-2-8317-2077-7. S2CID 241360441.
  10. ^ a b Brennan J (9 March 2018). "Animals of the Abyssal Ecosystem". Sciencing. Retrieved 2019-05-01.
  11. ^ Shukman, David (2013-02-21). "Deepest undersea vents discovered". BBC News. Retrieved 2020-05-19.
  12. ^ Wigmore G. "The unique visual systems of deep sea fish". Phys.org. Retrieved 2019-05-01.
  13. ^ Gartner Jr JV (1997). "4 Feeding At Depth". Fish Physiology. 16: 115–193. doi:10.1016/S1546-5098(08)60229-0. ISBN 9780123504401.
  14. ^ Priede IG, Froese R, Bailey DM, Bergstad OA, Collins MA, Dyb JE, Henriques C, Jones EG, King N (June 2006). "The absence of sharks from abyssal regions of the world's oceans". Proceedings. Biological Sciences. 273 (1592): 1435–41. doi:10.1098/rspb.2005.3461. PMC 1560292. PMID 16777734.