DEEP SEARCH 2019: DEEP Sea Exploration to Advance Research on Coral/Canyon/Cold seep Habitats

Scientists Discover Deep-sea Tubeworms Living at Seeps 36 Miles Offshore North Carolina

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A tubeworm growing on a carbonate rock with white chemosynthetic bacterial mat and anemones nearby at the Kitty Hawk Seep study site. Video courtesy of DEEP SEARCH 2019 - BOEM, USGS, NOAA, ROV Jason, ©Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Download larger version (mp4, 33.2 MB).

Scientists discovered chemosynthetic vestimentiferan tubeworms while exploring methane cold seeps on a research expedition in the Atlantic Ocean off of the U.S. southeast coast last month, marking the first time that tubeworms have ever been observed in this part of the Atlantic.

While using the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Jason to pry off a piece of rock, a tubeworm popped out “like a jack in the box,” says Amanda Demopoulos, U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Research Ecologist and Chief Scientist for the expedition. “The initial discovery of the tubeworm was very serendipitous. We were trying to break off a piece of rock for a collection when the worm appeared seemingly out of nowhere. It was hidden from view, buried in a crevice within the larger rock.” The next day, the scientists investigated a seep further north and collected additional tubeworms, showing that this was not an isolated observation.

A tubeworm growing from under a carbonate outcrop surrounded by anemones and fish.

A tubeworm growing from under a carbonate outcrop surrounded by anemones and fish. Image courtesy of DEEP SEARCH 2019 - BOEM, USGS, NOAA, ROV Jason, ©Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Download larger version (jpg, 7 MB).

These dives were conducted at Pea Island and Kitty Hawk seeps less than 50 miles off the coast of North Carolina that were recently detected through multibeam mapping efforts and previously imaged by the autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) Sentry in 2017. The seeps host a diverse range of fishes, including black bellied rosefish, snipe eels, hammerhead sharks, manta rays, and tuna. Additional collections included rock and shell samples and sediments to provide more information about the environment in which the tubeworms lived.

Vestimentiferans are types of siboglinid polychaete worms that host symbiotic bacteria that use chemosynthesis to convert hydrogen sulfide into food for the worms to thrive on. The tubeworms have no gut as adults, so they are completely reliant on the symbiotic bacteria for nutrition. Hydrogen sulfide is toxic to humans and smells like rotten eggs.

“These tubeworms are a significant finding and contribution to our understanding of the biodiversity of the deep sea. The more we know about these sensitive habitats the better we can ultimately use science to inform any future decisions to ensure their protection,” said Michael Rasser, marine ecologist with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), who participated in the April mission and oversees the study for BOEM.

While other seep fauna, including symbiotic mussels, have been found at several seeps along the U.S. Atlantic margin, there are no reports of tubeworms in this part of the Atlantic. The closest records of vestimentiferans are from the Gulf of Mexico, Cayman Trough, and Barbados. Beyond that, they are found off of Brazil, west Africa, and the Mediterranean. These tubeworms are the relatives of the giant tubeworms found at hydrothermal vents, but they have not been found at any of the vents along the mid-Atlantic Ridge that have been explored.

The expedition was conducted as part of the DEEP Sea Exploration to Advance Research on Coral/Canyon/Cold seep Habitats (DEEP SEARCH) program sponsored by BOEM, NOAA, and USGS. Along with scientists from these agencies, the DEEP SEARCH team includes scientists from several academic institutions contracted by TDI Brooks International, including Temple University, Florida State University, Harvey Mudd College, the University of Georgia, Nova Southeast University, the University of New Hampshire, and the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research.

The goal of DEEP SEARCH is to learn more about sensitive canyon, seep, and coral habitats off the U.S. Atlantic Coast to inform proper protection and management if offshore resource development is planned for the region.


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Kaitlin Kovacs

United States Geological Survey
Email: KKovacs@usgs.gov

Heather Dewar

United States Geological Survey
Email: HDewar@usgs.gov

Marjorie Weisskohl

Bureau of Ocean Energy Management
Email: Marjorie.Weisskohl@boem.gov