Auburn University researchers make deep sea creature discovery and set sail for Antarctica

AUBURN UNIVERSITY – Auburn University professor Kenneth Halanych and his colleagues have made a new scientific discovery: acorn worms found in deep waters surrounding Antarctica secrete a tube around their bodies. The discovery of an acorn worm with the ability to make tubes is significant as the only other worms of this type known to make tubes lived more than 500 million years ago near the dawn of animal life on earth.

The group’s discovery comes on the heels of the first of two Antarctic research cruises. Last January, a team of scientists from the College of Sciences and Mathematics’ William P. and Ruth W. Molette Environmental and Climate Change Studies Laboratory spent six weeks on a research cruise exploring the genetic diversity of marine organisms found in the waters surrounding Earth’s southernmost continent.

The team will set sail on a second cruise from Nov. 21 to Dec. 20, and once again will explore the biodiversity of the Antarctic seas, searching for evolutionary relationships between species. Beginning this week, a daily blog will be available to follow on the Antarctica Cruises website at www.auburn.edu/antarctica. Follow them on twitter: @Icy_Inverts_AU.

The discovery that acorn worms in the waters of Antarctica actually make tubes has captured the attention of the scientific community, and a paper on the research titled, “Modern Antarctic acorn worms form tubes,” was published in the prestigious scientific online journal, Nature Communications.

“Our observations suggest the acorn worms with tubes have the same behaviors of fossil worms, and some of the behaviors we observed have been conserved for more than 500 million years. Arguably, some behaviors of these animals appear to be among the earliest known animal behaviors that are still around today,” Halanych said. “The discovery of these relatively common animals in polar seas emphasizes our lack of biodiversity knowledge in these regions and suggests close ties between polar continent shelf animals and the deep sea from more northern regions.”

The plan for this trip is to sample in the Bellinghausen Sea at the southwestern end of the peninsula, an area where, until January, no one had sampled the deep dwelling animals of the ocean floor.

“The mission of this voyage complements our January-February cruise,” Halanych said. “We will continue to examine biodiversity and collect samples to assess if bottom-dwelling marine invertebrates have localized distributions or are found all the way around the Antarctic. By doing this, we can see if the animals’ ranges have shifted in the future due to climate change.”

The research cruises are sponsored by a National Science Foundation grant titled, “Genetic Connectivity and Biogeographic Patterns of Antarctic Bethnic Invertebrates.” Halanych is the principal investigator on the project and Scott Santos, associate professor of biological sciences at Auburn, and Andrew Mahon, assistant professor of biological sciences at Central Michigan University and former postdoctoral fellow at Auburn, are co-principal investigators.

(Written by Candis Birchfield.)

Contact: Candis Birchfield, College of Sciences and Mathematics, or Mike Clardy, Office of Communications and Marketing, (334) 844-9999 (clardch@auburn.edu)