Boingboing asks: “Quick, what’s pink and thrives on hydrocarbons?” The answer? Ice worms. There’s a bunch of them (8 to be exact) in the photograph above, thriving at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico in solid, ice-like lumps of methane hydrate.
First, ice worms are social butterflies. I’ve just mixed some metaphors there, I think, but you get the idea. In the picture above, you can see that they live close to each other, hollowing out little divots on the surface of the hydrate as “burrows”. But they also take advantage of the proximity to interact with their neighbors, Joye says. The worms move around the hydrate. They interact with each other. And they fight. A lot. “They just go at it,” Joye says. “We spent hours videotaping them.”
Also, they’re probably farmers. The ice worms are unique in their particular habitat in that they don’t have symbiotic bacteria that help them process hydrocarbons into food. Instead, Joye and her colleagues think the worms probably live off the thick mat of microbes that grows on the gas hydrate. The worms likely tend their “herd” by simply moving around, circulating the sea water and bringing oxygen to the microbes.
Finally, the worms can be surprisingly tough to spot. In fact, Joye and her colleagues had been studying gas hydrates for years before they realized the worms were there at all. That breakthrough came when Ian MacDonald, a Florida State University oceanographer, designed a better underwater digital camera that could take extreme close-ups of the hydrate surface. “It turned out, we’d been seeing them all along. They’d been in our photographs, but we hadn’t recognized them as life and had just missed the forest for the trees,” Joye says.