22 Mar 2013

Diving into an Alien World

By Claire Eamer

In a couple of months, I'll be touring schools and libraries in Ontario, talking about some of the marvellous and strange animals in my book, Lizards in the Sky: Animals Where You Least Expect Them. So I've been thinking about critters and presentations and cool pictures and things like that... and, well, one thing led to another, and I found a whole raft of new, cool, and utterly weird critters in one of my favourite habitats, the deep ocean.

The ROV Hercules operates deep in the Atlantic Ocean.
Photo credit: Mountains in the Sea Research Team;
the IFE Crew; and NOAA/OAR/OER

We're talking deep, here--really deep. So deep and so strange that exploring the deep ocean is like exploring an alien planet. In fact, you need the equivalent of a space ship to go to the deep ocean, something that can see in the absolute dark and survive pressures that would crush the toughest submarine.

But, oh, the wonders when you get there!

How about this? Five full kilometres below the sunny surface of the Caribbean Sea is the Cayman Trough. It's utterly dark and very cold down there, but not everywhere. Just last month, scientists released video taken by a remotely operated undersea vehicle. It shows mineral chimneys at tall as four-storey buildings, belching smoky black water as hot as 400 degrees Celsius, four times the boiling point of water.

Even more astounding were the creatures lurking around those vents: fireworms that look like woolly caterpillars and delicate, almost-colourless shrimp with special organs for detecting hot water.
Super-heated water and rocks billow up from an undersea
volcano in the Pacific Ocean near New Zealand.
Photo credit: Submarine ROF 2006, NOAA Vents Program.

Over in the Pacific Ocean, there's an even deeper spot--Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench, on the west side of the Pacific. At about 12.5 kilometres, it's the deepest spot in all Earth's oceans. And even there, where the pressure is 1000 times the pressure we experience at Earth's surface--even there, you'll find life. A lot of it! Tiny life, to be sure--bacteria. But they swarm there far more densely than in the shallower water at the edge of the Trench.

You don't even have to go super-deep to find the super-weird. Over the last couple of years, scientists have been finding some spectacularly strange creatures in the ocean surrounding Antarctica. National Geographic compiled a list of the five weirdest Antarctic species, including a transparent fish and sea spiders that breathe through holes in their bodies.
This feather-pen-like coral lives almost 2.5 kilometres 
below the ocean surface at Davidson Seamount, California.
Photo credit: NOAA/Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.

Not to be outdone, the biologist who writes one of my favourite science blogs, The Echinoblog, compiled a list of the ten weirdest Antarctic invertebrates. His list includes a 30-centimetre worm with serious teeth!

Me, I'm waiting eagerly for the next list--maybe longer and even weirder.

In the meantime, I guess I had better get back to what started all this, preparing some presentations about my own favourite weird beasties. Seeya!

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