If you’re anything like my big sister, you’re not a fan of having a view of worms very close to your face (I have years of data to support the sister conclusion. Sorry Laura). However, the ship R/V Thompson, a research vessel of Ocean Networks Canada, is filled with people who want nothing more than to get up close and personal with some of the most inaccessible worms on Earth.
I’m referring to the tube worms, Ridgeia piscesae, that live several kilometers deep in the ocean next to volcanic structures known as hydrothermal vents. These vents have superheated water (the site we are at gets as hot as 350 degrees Celsius) that is inches away from water that is significantly cooler, roughly two degrees Celsius. The superheated water is also full of hydrogen sulphide, iron, and a whole soup of chemicals that make something extraordinary happen. Hydrothermal vent communities, unlike almost all other ecosystems, do not rely on the power of the sun.
Most of us can trace what we eat or what the animals around us eat back to plants, and plants get all of their energy from the sun through a process called photosynthesis. What the hydrothermal vent communities rely on is not plants and photosynthesis, but bacteria and chemosynthesis. The chemically rich, scalding fluids feed huge amounts of bacteria, and that bacteria feeds everything above it, whether directly or indirectly. It seems like a strange setup to us, but the number of animals these fluids can sustain speaks for itself.
The worms are a really special case in these communities, which is why researchers such as Maeva Perez from the University of Victoria are excited to be studying them. “The worms don’t feed,” says Perez. “They don’t have a mouth; they don’t have a digestive tract. What they have instead is a symbiotic relationship with the bacteria that live in their bodies. The worms absorb the chemicals from the vent through their circulatory system, and the bacteria, living in a specialized organ, uses the chemicals to grow or make food which is then used by the worm.”
Perez is looking to further the understanding of the relationship between worms and bacteria. “I suspect it is really a community of bacteria interacting in complex ways inside of the worm. Basically, it is a community [of bacteria] within a community [of tube worms].”
They’re amazing, they’re gross, and they’ll worm their way into your hearts if you let them (metaphorically speaking).
By Vancouver Aquarium educator Colin Young.
Colin is accompanying Ocean Networks Canada on a research trip to the Pacific aboard research vessel R/V Thompson. With the help of ROVs and Ocean Network Canada’s deep water observatory, NEPTUNE, the team is gathering information on aquatic life in the ocean’s deep waters. Colin is blogging and sharing updates along the way.