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It is about 190 km (~120 miles) west of the island of Crete. It is called a 'lake' because, though it is under more than two miles of water, it is almost completely separate from the sea above it. Its huge salt content prevents the waters mixing. Sometimes these lakes are called brine pools. They are found in many oceans; there is one in the Gulf of Mexico.
How it formed
L'Atalante is only one of several such lakes underneath the normal waters of the Mediterranean. When the Strait of Gibraltar was closed, about six million years ago, the Mediterranean dried up and became a huge salt lake, rather like the Dead Sea and the Great Salt Lake are today. Then it dried out completely, leaving an enormous amount of salt. When the Straight of Gibraltar opened again about five million years ago, water from the Atlantic Ocean rushed in to form the Mediterranean we see today. Even today, the Atlantic feeds the Mediterranean with water, because the evaporation from the 'Med' is greater than is provided by its rivers. With its huge supply of salt underneath, and the constant evaporation, the Med is a high salt sea compared with the Atlantic.
The L'Atalanta lake and its neighbours the Urania and Discovery lakes are about 35,000 years old. They were formed by salt deposits dissolving out of the Mediterranean Ridge and collecting in deep depressions at the bottom of the Med. L'Atalante is the smallest of the three. Its surface begins at about 3,500 m (11,500 ft) below sea level.
L'Atalante's salinity (salt content) is near saturation, at 36.5%, about eight times more than seawater. This prevents the water in the brine pool from mixing with the 'normal' seawater above. Without mixing, oxygen from above can't get into the brine pool. The basin's water is completely anoxic: it has no oxygen.
Between the normal water and the brine is a short (1.5 metres) boundary zone called a halocline. The salt content rises sharply there, and oxygen reduces towards zero. This halocline between the seawater above and the brine below has many bacterial and archaeal cells: they are chemoautotrophs, which feed on ammonia from the brine but cannot function without some oxygen. Certain methane oxidizers and haloarchaea are found only in the halocline.
Life without oxygen
Below, in the brine, the number of cells is much lower than in the halocline. Extremophiles are most common, including some of the deep-sea hydrothermal vent archaea and bacteria. Eukaryotes are also found in l'Atalante, mostly ciliates (45%), dinoflagellates (21%) and choanoflagellata (10%).p360–381
The dark grey anoxic sediments at the bottom of L'Atalante lake are covered with a 1 cm (0.4 in) loose black layer. Microbes found in the sediments are almost all (90%) various species of Bacillus. In 2010, three metazoan species, all in the Loricifera phylum, were discovered living in the sediment, the first multicellular lifeforms known to live entirely without oxygen.
- It is named after one of the research vessels involved in its discovery in 1993. Aloisi, Giovanni; Castradori, Davide; Cita, Maria Bianca. "Sediment injection in the pit of the Urania Anoxic brine lake (Eastern Mediterranean)". Rendiconti Lincei (Springer Milan) 17 (3): 243-262. . http://www.springerlink.com/content/b64n88k71h11l1v5/.
- Sass, Andrea M; McKew, Boyd A; Sass, Henrik; Fichte, Jörg; Timmis, Kenneth N; McGenity, Terry J (2008). "Diversity of Bacillus-like organisms isolated from deep-sea hypersaline anoxic sediments". Saline Systems (BioMed Central) 4 (8). . http://www.salinesystems.org/content/4/1/8.
- Hsu, Kenneth J. 1987. The Mediterranean was a desert: a voyage of the Glomar Challenger. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-02406-5
- Blanc P.-L. 2002. The opening of the Plio-Quaternary Gibraltar Strait: assessing the size of a cataclysm. Geodin. Acta 15, 303–317.
- "Only the inflow of Atlantic water maintains the present Mediterranean level. When that was shut off sometime between 6.5 to 6 MYBP, net evaporative loss set in at the rate of around 3,300 cubic kilometers yearly. At that rate, the 3.7 million cubic kilometres of water in the basin would dry up in scarcely more than a thousand years, leaving an extensive layer of salt some tens of meters thick and raising global sea level about 12 meters". Cloud, Preston 1988. Oasis in space. Earth history from the beginning. W.W. Norton, New York. p440. ISBN 0-393-01952-7
- Fusi, Nicoletta et al. 1996. Marine geology of the Medriff Corridor, Mediterranean Ridge. The Island Arc. 5, 420-439. doi=10.1111/j.1440-1738.1996.tb00163.x
- Yakimov, Michail M. et al. 2007. Primary producing prokaryotic communities of brine, interface and seawater above the halocline of deep anoxic lake L'Atalante, Eastern Mediterranean Sea. The ISME Journal, Nature Publishing Group. 1, 743–755. doi=10.1038/ismej.2007.83
- Alexander, Eva et al. 2009. Microbial eukaryotes in the hypersaline anoxic L'Atalante deep-sea basin. Society for Applied Microbiology. 11 doi=10.1111/j.1462-2920.2008.01777.x
- Fang, Janet (2010). Animals thrive without oxygen at sea bottom. http://www.nature.com/news/2010/100406/full/464825b.html.