Israeli and German scientists recently took the plunge into the murky, salty Dead Sea, making what they say is the first scientific diving expedition there. Scouring the seafloor, they saw small freshwater springs—with mats of salt-loving, never-before-seen microorganisms coating the surface of nearby craters. In these waters—too salty for large animals, too rich in magnesium for many bacteria—seeing so much life was a surprise.
While floating in the Dead Sea is a popular tourist pastime, scuba-ing into its depths is a difficult and dangerous endeavor. Since the salty water is so buoyant, the divers had to carry 90 pounds each to weigh them down. Swallowing some of the salty water—a not-implausible occurrence during a dive—would make the larynx swell up, leading the diver to suffocate. If that weren’t enough, getting the water in your eyes would be painful at best, and potentially blinding. The scientists wore full face masks during their dive, and apparently weren’t scared off; they’re headed back down for a follow-up study in October.
Kaleidoscopic. Delightfully odd. And too numerous to truly grasp.
There are many more words one could deploy to describe the worlds unknown under the sea. An international group of scientists has been scouring them for life for the last decade, and later this year, on October 4, the Census of Marine Life will release it catalog of marine inhabitants. “The number could be astonishingly large, perhaps a million or more, if all small animals and protists are included,” the organization says.
Octopuses, jellyfish, and other sprawling sea creatures dominated the census’ prior reports. But this time they’ve dived even deeper, surveying tiny life. Remotely operated deep-sea vehicles discovered that roundworms dominate the deepest, darkest abyss. Sometimes, more than 500,000 can exist in just over a square yard of soft clay [AP].
And then there are the microbes. The scientists conservatively estimate that there must be at least 20 million kinds of microbe in the oceans. The true number may even be billions or trillions [Nature]. Individual microbes reach even more astronomical number. There are probably a nonillion of them in the sea, the scientists estimate. That’s a billion cubed, and then times 1,000. Or, if you prefer your measurements given in the weight of African elephants, it’d be 240 billion of them.
Take a peek through this quick slideshow of some of the weirdest ocean life seen so far.
Image: David Patterson et. al.
Microorganisms can live the far reaches of the planet, in extreme temperatures and pressures, and in some cases even without oxygen. But now scientists say they have found the first multicellular organisms inhabiting an anoxic environment. In other words: They’ve found the first animals living without oxygen.
They belong to the group called loriciferans, a phylum of creatures that live in marine sediment. About a millimeter long, they look something like a half-jellyfish, half-crab. The beasts live in conditions that would kill every other known animal. As well as lacking oxygen, the sediments are choked with salt and swamped with hydrogen sulphide gas [New Scientist].
Roberto Danovaro and his colleagues, who documented this find in BMC Biology, had been searching the salty, oxygen-free depths of the Mediterranean Sea down below 10,000 feet for life. When previous searches turned up animal bodies, he says, researchers wrote them off, thinking they had fallen to those depths from oxygenated waters closer to the surface. But Danovaro says his team recovered living loriciferans from the area, including ones with eggs.