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Newfound worm's world under the sea.

From a distance, the glinting deposit of ice-like hydrate jutting from the mud bottom of the Gulf of Mexico was most remarkable for its size. Such deposits--crystallized structures combining water and hydrocarbon gases-typically only peek 25 through crevices in the ocean floor This outcropping (right top), spotted July 15, cuts a swath the size of a refrigerator.

As their research submersible moved closer, Charles Fisher and his colleagues noticed that the canary yellow hydrate was crawling with pastel pink animals 1 to 2 inches long (digitally modified photo, light bottom).

"We were astounded, " says Fisher, a physiological ecologist at Pennsylvania State University in State College. The widespread hydrates of methane and other gases have been eyed as a possible source of fuel (SN: 11/9/96, p. 298), not of fauna.

The pink creepers turned out to be flat, segmented marine worms known as polychaetes. With their brushlike appendages (below), "they look like centipedes at first, " says Andre Toulmond of the Observatoire Oceanologique de Roscoff in France.

Researchers are now studying some of the retrieved worms, which Toulmond says appear to be an unknown species from a familiar marine worm family (Hesionidae).

The hydrate worms are probably as common as the deposits themselves, says Fisher They've just been hidden under sediment. Spying the worms on the exposed and burrow-filled hydrate was like "seeing the underside of a log, " says oceanographer Ian MacDonald of Texas A&M University in College Station. He and Fisher have since picked out the occasional pink worm on earlier photos of other hydrates.

In the last 2 decades, researchers have found life around other unusual deep-sea habitats, including hydrothermal vents and oil seeps. Fisher usually studies tube worms (SN: 9128196, p. 201), which were also present near the hydrate (top photo, left side).

Like these organisms, the hydrate worms are no doubt living off bacteria that can feed on the hydrocarbons within the deposit, says Fisher "What we don't know yet is whether bacteria are living on the hydrate, in the hydrate, on the worm, or in the worm."

Something else is no doubt living off the worms. Various fish and other organisms probably regard these worms as lunch, says MacDonald.
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Title Annotation:new species of marine worm found on hydrate in Gulf of Mexico
Author:Mlot, Christine
Publication:Science News
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Aug 9, 1997
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