the “Elvis worms” that glow in the dark

the “Elvis worms” that glow in the dark

the “Elvis worms” that glow in the dark

Nearly 4,000 meters (13,000 feet) underwater in the Pescadero Basin in the Gulf of California are some of the deepest hydrothermal vents in the Pacific and are covered in tiny iridescent worms. “You’ll see little worms sparkling pink, blue, red, black and white,” says Avery Hiley, a graduate researcher at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego.

These are hungry worms, or Peinaleopolinoepeinaleos meaning “hungry” or “hungry” in Greek – so named because they were first found clustered around a pile of food that scientists had experimentally left on the bottom of the deep sea. For years they have been nicknamed “Elvis worms” for their sparkling scales, reminiscent of the sequin jumpsuits worn by Elvis Presley.

There are six known species of hungry worms, all thumb-sized and living in the depths of the sea, four of which were named in 2020. One of these, boasting a mantle of sparkling pink scales, is named specifically after the king of the rock. ‘ n’roll – Hiley and her colleagues called him Peinaleopolynoe elvisi.

The ocean is one of the last truly wild spaces in the world. It is teeming with fascinating species that at times seem to border on the absurd, from fish looking up through transparent heads to gilded snails in iron armor. We know more about deep space than about deep oceans, and science is only beginning to scratch the surface of the rich variety of life in the depths.

As mining companies push to industrialize the seabed and global leaders continue to squabble over how to protect the high seas, a new Guardian Seascape series will feature some of the weird, wonderful, majestic, ridiculous, hardcore and mind-blowing creatures recently discovered. They reveal how much there is still to be learned about the lesser-known environment on Earth and how much there is to be protected.

Hungry worms have been found on dead whale carcasses and volcanic seamounts, hydrothermal ducts and cold seepages, where methane drips across the sea floor like champagne bubbles.

It is likely that the worms are feeding on bacteria that harness the chemicals that grow in all of these habitats. “They have jaws that we suspect they use to expel bacteria,” says Hiley. “So, we think they are bacterial.”

When Hiley and colleagues did genetic testing on hungry mealybugs in the Pescadero basin, what they assumed were multiple species, each with their own color, turned out to be a single species. “We realized that with age it just seems like that [the] the species changes color as it develops from a juvenile to an adult form.

The colors of the worms are created not by pigments but by the light reflecting and refracting within the internal structure of the scales, in the same way as the bright blue butterfly wings. The only light available in the deep sea to make them glow is the bioluminescence of other animals, but they shine brightly in the headlights of robots and deep dive submersibles.

It is possible that as worms age their color changes as their scales become thicker, altering the way light passes through them. The thicker scales are blue. Slightly thinner they are pink. “The smaller worms tend to always be white and the scales are very fragile,” says Hiley.

Related: Discovery in the abyss: the worm that eats bones

Previously, when scientists collected hungry worm specimens, many had splinters in their thick scales; they assumed that their scales had been damaged while being picked up by a deep diving robot and transferred to the surface. Then, in 2017 at the Pescadero basin, a rare scene was captured by the camera. “It turns out, actually, that this species performs this fighting ritual,” says Hiley.

Hungry worms bounce in place and punch each other, reversing their snouts and biting each other with their powerful jaws. “It was a piece of the puzzle that we haven’t known for a long time,” says Hiley.

It is not yet clear why the worms fight each other. “We have more observations to make, for sure,” she says.

Another puzzle Hiley wants to solve is how hungry worms evolved from ancestors who lived in shallow seas in order to survive in the low-oxygen, hyper-pressurized environment of the deep sea. She is looking for clues in their genes.

“We’re starting to see some weird things on a genetic level with these deep-sea worms,” ​​says Hiley. The 29 species of deep-sea mealybugs, including hungry species, have a huge variation in their genetic order compared to the worm species that live in shallow seas. Hiley is investigating whether this could somehow help explain how the worms adapted to the rigors of the ocean depths.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.