Deep-Sea Tubeworms Discovered After Popping Out ‘Like a Jack in the Box,’ Surprising Scientist

By Venus Upadhayaya, Epoch Times
May 10, 2019 Updated: May 10, 2019

Scientists investigating methane seeps on the ocean floor off North Carolina were in for a surprise—when a deep-sea tubeworm, never seen before in the region, popped out “like a jack in the box.”

The team from the Deep Search 2019 expedition with NOAA were exploring the cold seeps 36 miles off the North Carolina coast in the Atlantic when the unexpected discovery was made, according to an official statement on May 8.

While using a remotely operated vehicle “to pry off a piece of rock, a tubeworm popped out ‘like a jack in the box,’” said Amanda Demopoulos, U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Research Ecologist and Chief Scientist for the expedition.

An Important Part of the Ecosystem

Cold seeps are areas on the ocean floor where certain gases escape through fissures caused by tectonic activity, and the area generally supports species unique to such an environment. Scientists study cold seeps because they impact ocean chemistry and have a global impact, according to Science Direct.

A tubeworm is growing
A tubeworm growing from under a carbonate outcrop surrounded by anemones and fish. (Image courtesy of DEEP SEARCH 2019 – BOEM, USGS, NOAA, ROV Jason, ©Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.)

The study of life around cold seeps helps scientists understand the significance of the region. The expedition said the seeps also host a “diverse range of fishes, including black bellied rosefish, snipe eels, hammerhead sharks, manta rays, and tuna.”

“The initial discovery of the tubeworm was very serendipitous. We were trying to break off a piece of rock for a collection when the worm appeared seemingly out of nowhere. It was hidden from view, buried in a crevice within the larger rock,” said Demopoulos.

It was not the only discovery—the next day the scientists collected more tubeworms from a seep further north.

Close-up photo of tubeworms from a cold seeps at 550 m depth in the Gulf of Mexico. (Charles Fisher/Wikimedia Commons [CC BY 2.5])
Tubeworms are very special sea organisms. Unlike many other sea creatures, they don’t have a digestive system and depend on symbiotic bacteria to transform hydrogen sulfide into food.

“These tubeworms are a significant finding and contribution to our understanding of the biodiversity of the deep sea. The more we know about these sensitive habitats the better we can ultimately use science to inform any future decisions to ensure their protection,” said Michael Rasser, marine ecologist with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), who participated in the mission and oversees the study for BOEM.

The scientist said while other creatures have been discovered at several seeps in the area, there hasn’t been any reporting of tubeworm sightings in this region of the Atlantic.

“These tubeworms are the relatives of the giant tubeworms found at hydrothermal vents, but they have not been found at any of the vents along the mid-Atlantic Ridge that have been explored,” the scientist said.

Tubeworms from a cold seep at 550 m depth in the Gulf of Mexico. (Ian MacDonald/Wikimedia Commons [CC BY 2.5])
The scientists also collected rock, shell, and sediment samples to study more about the environment where the tubeworms live.

“The goal of DEEP SEARCH is to learn more about sensitive canyon, seep, and coral habitats off the U.S. Atlantic Coast to inform proper protection and management if offshore resource development is planned for the region,” said the expedition.

Follow Venus on Twitter: @venusupadhayaya
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