Monday, April 11, 2016

The Methane Dwellers

Methane hydrate is truly strange stuff, basically huge masses of methane locked in ice on the seafloor in a molecular lattice known in the chemical world as a clathrate. It's been proposed as a source of power: indeed, Japan took the lead a few years ago by testing recovery of methane hydrate (sometimes called methane clathrate) for its fuel potential.  The stuff also terrifies some climate scientists: the slow warming of the oceans may melt countless tons of ice and release the methane to make its way, eventually,  into the atmosphere.  
The strangest thing of all, though, is what lives in the icy domain of methane hydrate beds.  In 1997, one of the weirdest animals anywhere - a worm living in the frozen methane - was discovered in the Gulf of Mexico. Biologist Charles “Chuck” Fisher of Pennsylvania State University and submersible pilot Phil Santos spotted the “wall of worms” from a submersible over 2,000 feet down.

The methane dweller (NOAA)

The worms (they were originally christened Hesiocaeca methanicola, but that name was rejected by the ICZN for some reason in favor of Sircoe methanicola)  are up to five cm long.  They have stubby pink bodies, pink feet shaped like paddles, and tufts of white bristles all over.  They are members of the huge group called the polychaete worms and live in great numbers on brownish-yellow chunks of hydrate, some 2m feet across in this location, which protrude into the water from huge masses frozen under the sea bed.  For a while scientists were puzzled about how the worms gained nourishment.  Apparently bacteria which can metabolize the methane are present in sufficient numbers to be consumed by the worms.   
Said Fisher, "The old view that the deep sea bottom is a monotonous habitat needs to be discarded. These worms are the major players in a new and unique marine ecosystem... If these animals turn out to be everywhere on shallow seafloor gas deposits, possibly worldwide, they could have a significant impact on how these deposits are formed and dissolve in seawater and on how we go about mining or otherwise harvesting this natural gas as a source of energy,"
In other words, everything in the natural world is connected to bigger issues.  Even worms.

Further reading:
Anonymous.  1997.  “Scientists Discover Methane Ice Worms on Gulf of Mexico Sea Floor,” Pennsylvania State University press release, July 29.
Anonymous.  1997.  “Worms in Ice,” Earth, December, p.14.

Pain, Stephanie.  “1998. “Extreme Worms,” New Scientist, July 25.

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