Studies of the many active and inactive hydrothermal vents found during the past 15 years have radically altered views of biological and geological processes in the deep sea. The biological communities occupying the vast and relatively stable soft bottom habitats of the deep sea are characterized by low population densities, high species diversity, and low biomass. In contrast, those inhabiting the generally unstable conditions of hydrothermal vent environments exhibit high densities and biomass, low species diversity, rapid growth rates, and high metabolic rates. Biological processes, such as rates of metabolism and growth, in vent organisms are comparable to those observed in organisms from shallow-water ecosystems. An abundant energy source is provided by chemosynthetic bacteria that constitute the primary producers sustaining the lush communities at the hydrothermal sites. Fluxes in vent flow and fluid chemistry cause changes in growth rates, reproduction, mortality, and/or colonization of vent fauna, leading to temporal and spatial variation of the vent communities. Vent populations that cannot adapt to modified flow rates are adversely affected, as is evidenced by high mortality or lower rates of colonization, growth, or reproduction. Substantial changes in biota have been witnessed at several vents, and successional cycles have been proposed for the Galapagos vent fields. Dramatic temporal and spatial variations in vent community structure may also relate to variations in larval dispersal and chance recruitment, as well as biotic interactions.