Hot Pink Beasties of the Deep

Hot pink beasties of The Deep

By Maggie Koerth-Baker

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.)

eightworms.jpg

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!"

helloworm.jpg

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

wormcloseup.jpg

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

Published 5:34 am Wed, Oct 14, 2009

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About the Author

Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. From August 2014-May 2015, she will be a Nieman-Berkman Fellow at Harvard University. You can follow Maggie's adventures in the Ivory Tower by subscribing to The Fellowship of Three Things newsletter.

14 Responses to “Hot Pink Beasties of the Deep”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Quick, what’s pink and thrives on hydrocarbons?

    Ooh, I AM! I AM! PICK ME, MONTY!

    These remind me of the feathered worms from the Burgess Shale.

  2. Orpheus84 says:

    I don’t think these worms count as living outside of solar energy, unless you’re a proponent of
    abiogenesis.

    I do think that the worms are cool though. There’s got to be some sort of pollution control application for the farming of these things.

  3. Anonymous says:

    The first time that I heard of methane ice worms was in the context of making them a fuel. See http://alternative2energy.com/worms/index.htm

  4. dculberson says:

    Methane ice worms: the latest intergalactic scourge or best punk band name ever?

    Maggie, thanks for the awesome post.

  5. scifijazznik says:

    The methane/water shell may not be tasty, but what about the worms themselves? I betcha if Bobby Flay dusted them in chipotle powder, grilled ‘em up and served ‘em with mango salsa, they’d be nummy.

  6. Anonymous says:

    The first I heard of these worms was just a few weeks ago, in Frank Schätzing’s great novel “The Swarm”. I was impressed by his level of research, and also to learn the creatures that kept me company throughout the reading are real, and just as I thought they looked! Find a link to his (pretty awesome) book here:
    http://www.amazon.com/Swarm-Novel-Frank-Schatzing/dp/0060813261
    (Translation and editing aside…)

  7. JoshP says:

    These are gonna be the new sea monkeys, just watch. I wonder if anyone is gonna be able to get them to thrive in a lab enviro. frickin’ awesome.

  8. redsquares says:

    dculberson:
    If GWAR is any indication, I’d say both intergalactic scourge AND punk band

  9. SKR says:

    JoshP: if you want a worm that looks very similar, just go to your local aquarium shop and pick up a piece of Saltwater live rock. Plunk that in some saltwater and wait for the bristle worms to show themselves. Sure, they don’t live on methyl hydrate and crude oil, but they look just as creepy.

  10. glib909 says:

    Suddenly I have a craving for methane ice worm scampi.

  11. glittertrash says:

    So do these count amongst those life forms that exist outside of the solar energy -> photosynthesis food web that most of us belong to? I am SO interested in reading more about the biology of that entire category of life, especially the food chains involved, I have tried a few different Google searches but I am not a biologist, and haven’t come up with a good search string yet (“non-photosynthetic life” doesn’t return a great deal). In my non-biologist, science-fiction-prone brain, life forms that do not participate in a photosynthetic food web are both the aliens among us, and evidence for the plausibility of non-terrestrial life. Deep ocean vent bacterial colonies: also extremely exciting. So I’d be very keen to see more articles or links to more research in this field!

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