How to Cross the Deep Sea: Stepping Stones of Mollusk Poop

By Elizabeth Preston
Jan 26, 2013 2:44 AMNov 5, 2019 12:20 AM


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The seafloor has no shortage of spiky wildlife or hairy mysteries. One such mystery is logistical: where do the animals that live around deep-sea vents and cold seeps come from?

On the black and generally barren bottom of the ocean, food is scarce. Hydrothermal vents and cold seeps—places where methane, sulfides and other chemical goodies leak out of the seafloor—are like desert oases. Whole communities of weird creatures that live on these chemicals rather than the sun cluster around them.

Researchers think big pieces of organic junk that fall to the bottom of the ocean, such as sunken ships and deceased whales (called "whale falls"), may act as stepping stones for these communities. Species might disperse from one seafloor chimney to the next via a visit to a wrecked ship.

"Wood is a foreign substance in the deep sea," says Christina Bienhold of the Max Planck Institute. To find out whether resourceful ocean critters can easily make use of wood that falls into the ocean, she and other researchers dropped some in. They rigged together small heaps of Douglas fir logs, weighted them with cement, and carried them a mile down into the Mediterranean.

The researchers used four wood piles, each two meters long. They were at various distances from a known cold seep. The closest log was 70 meters away—so if any animals scooted over from that community, it would be a bit of a trek.

One of the wood heaps was sampled just one day later. (It looked the same.) The other three rested on the ocean floor for a year before robotic vehicles returned to collect wood samples and scoop up the animals that had moved in.

And did they ever move in. Bienhold was surprised to find that her logs, after only a year on the seafloor, held thriving colonies of wildlife.

The logs' most abundant tenants were wood-boring bivalves called Xylophaga, or "shipworms." Built like a worm with a shell on one end, these mollusks burrow into wood while symbiotic bacteria help them digest it. All around the logs were evidence of their work: the researchers observed a layer of "fine wood chips and fecal matter" two to four centimeters thick.

The shipworms seemed to have attracted other animals interested in feeding on the mollusks themselves or on the waste piles they left everywhere. As these creatures ate and respired, they used up oxygen in the water and allowed oxygen-hating bacteria to move in. These bacteria created pockets of sulfides—food for the kinds of animals that live at cold seeps or hydrothermal vents. (Normally, they would find this food coming straight out of the ground.)

Like very unattractive doves out of a hat, those animals began to materialize out of the blackness of the ocean. Clustered around the logs were sea urchins, fish, and deep-sea mussels and crabs. There were small crustaceans that couldn't be identified, and several types of worms, including two brand-new species.

All three wood piles had similar animal communities living on and around (and, in the case of the crabs, hiding underneath) them. Their bacterial communities were more diverse. But they all included bacteria that could break down the cellulose in wood, as well as bacteria that consume sulfate instead of oxygen.

Bienhold says her results show how wood that falls to the seafloor can create hotspots of ocean life. Hunks of organic trash like her log piles, even though they're few and far between on the bottom of the ocean, could help rare deep-sea species to spread. The key player in her set of experiments was the little wood-boring bivalve that moved in first and made the logs into a habitat that other wildlife could use.

"It remains enigmatic," Bienhold says, how the wood-borers (or any of the other organisms) found this new habitat in the first place. The researchers observed a greater density of sea urchins as they got closer to the wood piles; they seemed to be attracted to the wood by some chemical signal. Sea urchins and other animals may sniff out chemical cues from afar that help them find organic matter. For now, though, the secret remains sealed in their lipless bodies.

Bienhold C, Pop Ristova P, Wenzhöfer F, Dittmar T, & Boetius A (2013). How deep-sea wood falls sustain chemosynthetic life. PloS one, 8 (1) PMID: 23301092

Image: Sea urchins, courtesy of New Zealand-American Submarine Ring of Fire 2005 Exploration, NOAA Vents Program.

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