Alvin, the Deep Sea Research Sub, Has Spread Invasive Species in the Ocean

By Sarah Zhang | May 25, 2012 11:31 am

Alvin during a deep sea mission.

As humans venture out to new corners of the world, so do invasive species. This story is old: mice hid out on Viking boats, plant seeds followed scientists to Antarctica, and, now, limpets have hitched a ride on the deep sea submersible Alvin. This last finding, published in Conservation Biology, surprised scientists, who didn’t think that limpets could survive drastic pressure changes as Alvin surfaced between dives.

Since 1964, Alvin, the little sub that could, has made thousands of scientific dives—from surveying the Titanic to exploring hydrothermal vents. The sub and its sampling gear are cleaned between each dive, but this new limpet discovery suggests a mistake happened somewhere down the line.

Scientists on a dive mission in 2004 collected 38 limpets hundreds of miles from their known range and far from the hydrothermal vents where they usually live. A closer look at the preserved specimens confirmed the scientists’ fears. The morphology, DNA sequence, sex ratios, bacterial colonies, and isotopes of this population exactly matched those of a previous sample taken by Alvin in a different part of the Pacific.

For researchers, disturbing the very ecosystems they’re trying to study is bad for both science and the environment. They don’t want misinformation about where limpets live nor do they want invasive species to spread and disrupt the deep sea ecosystem. There’s talk of upping standards for cleaning equipment and using freshwater to get rid of any lurking marine creatures.

If limpets did indeed hitch a ride on Alvin—the evidence is worrisome but still only circumstantial—it’s impressive that these creatures adapted to bone-crushing pressures of the ocean’s depths survived a trip to the surface. The deep sea still has its mysteries.

[via Nature News]

  • Jay Fox

    What is the size of these things?

  • Brian Too

    Most limpets I’m familiar with are pretty small, maxing out at a couple of centimetres. And they go down from there to some truly tiny creatures. They’d have to be small for the above article to be true. If Alvin is being cleaned after each mission, and the cleaning is more than cursory, only a small limpet could escape attention.

    Abalone are morphologically similar to limpets and can grow much larger, to dinner plate size. However abalone are not limpets and no one I know of mistakes the two.

  • Mike Borrello

    I believe archaeogastropods, the class of molluscs to which limpets belong are free swimming organisms at their earliest stages of life, but even as they develop their shell and transform to the surface dwelling creatures we most often recognize, they are microscopic. Limpets like abalones exert a strong grip on the substrate, making them hard to remove. The shell of the juveniles are very thin so abrasive action , say wither a wire brush should be sufficient to remove. But I suspect the Alvin has many crevices that would make such cleaning difficult.

  • Dave R

    The Alvin team’s scientific failure reminds us that it may be inevitable that the search for life in the universe will spread life in the universe as robosearches proliferate. There is an insatiable need to demonstrate extraterrestrial life just as there is to investigate the unknown.
    However, for humans, even scientists, to live is to assume competence. Sometimes it just ain’t so.

  • scott

    Species migrate and move around – with or without us. Do we not do the same thing? Move in somewhere and change everything? Anyway, it can’t be stopped, just controlled after something gets hold somewhere else. I am not saying we should not be cautious but this has been going on for millions of years. Many things in nature are adpated to “hitch a ride” somewhere else.

  • Julian Alien

    The people that were hired to clean the sub were hired because they had boobs,not because they were good at manual labor.I guess if you hang out at places with names like Wood’s Hole your mind tends to wander from science to biology.

  • JLE

    @ Julian: Your remarks are misogynistic & without merit. The gender of the cleaners of the sub were not discussed anywhere in the article, yet you have determined that they were female? Really? I wonder where your mind has wandered…

  • Marc

    Ships have been sinking, tossing over junk, and trash for centuries. Thanks to gravity this stuff and their hitch hikers are all over the sea bottom. It’s fine to be concerned and to take more stringent measures cleaning the mini subs but people shouldn’t be up in arms over this.


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