Hot Pink Beasties of the Deep

Quick, what's pink and thrives on hydrocarbons?

It's not every day that nature serves up a creature roughly the shade of Barbie-doll packaging. Rarer still for an animal to live, quite happily, in a habitat saturated by methane gas and seeping crude oil. But the ice worms discovered in the Gulf of Mexico in 1997 manage to cover both characteristics handsomely. Naturally, I kind of adore them.

Flat and luridly pink, with a stunning array of creepy looking appendages, these worms live at the bottom of the ocean, on the surface of sea-floor gas hydrates--solid, ice-like lumps that form when molecules of methane are encased in a tasty candy shell of water molecules, kept at low temperatures and under high pressure. (Note: Shell not actually tasty.)


There are eight ice worms in the above image, according to marine scientist Samantha Joye. Can you find them all? It's like "Where's Waldo?", but with invertebrates. For the record, the methane hydrate is the orange stuff--so colored because of oil saturating it.

Amazingly, Samantha Joye, a marine scientist at the University of Georgia--and part of the team that first discovered the methane ice worms in 1997--managed to make them even more fascinating. Which is saying a lot for bubblegum-colored worms living in an environment that would kill most animals. What makes them so cool? (Besides the ice. Ba-DUM-Ching.)

First, ice worms are social butterflies. I've just mixed some metaphors there, I think, but you get the idea. In the picture above, you can see that they live close to each other, hollowing out little divots on the surface of the hydrate as "burrows". But they also take advantage of the proximity to interact with their neighbors, Joye says. The worms move around the hydrate. They interact with each other. And they fight. A lot. "They just go at it," Joye says. "We spent hours videotaping them."

Also, they're probably farmers. The ice worms are unique in their particular habitat in that they don't have symbiotic bacteria that help them process hydrocarbons into food. Instead, Joye and her colleagues think the worms probably live off the thick mat of microbes that grows on the gas hydrate. The worms likely tend their "herd" by simply moving around, circulating the sea water and bringing oxygen to the microbes.

Finally, the worms can be surprisingly tough to spot. In fact, Joye and her colleagues had been studying gas hydrates for years before they realized the worms were there at all. That breakthrough came when Ian MacDonald, a Florida State University oceanographer, designed a better underwater digital camera that could take extreme close-ups of the hydrate surface. "It turned out, we'd been seeing them all along. They'd been in our photographs, but we hadn't recognized them as life and had just missed the forest for the trees," Joye says.

And, because it's simply impossible to get enough ice worm photos...

This little guy is poking his head out to say, "Hello!"


And this is what they look like up close and personal:


All images here were taken by Ian MacDonald and come to me via Samantha Joye.