Why land plants matter to deep-sea critters

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Have you ever wondered what would happen if you chucked a bunch of logs into the deep sea?

Well, I do wonder about this, and several other people before me have wondered about this as well. In fact, this fascination goes back to Pliny the Elder when he alluded to shipworms (clams that bore into wood) when he wrote, “a large-headed teredo (or shipworm) which gnaws with teeth and lives in the sea.” But these creatures that live on wood in the ocean did not gain much of a following until the discovery of hydrothermal vents in 1977 and cold seeps in 1984, and the realization that there are many similarities between the critters that live in all these strange places and even single species that live in all of them (eg. Idas washingtonia, a mussel clam). So, it has not been until very recently that much attention has been payed to sunken wood communities. Researchers examine wood that gets pulled up in trawls or they sink wood to see what colonizes it. One person who has done quite a bit of research on deep-sea wood fall communities is Dr. Janet Voight at the University of Field Museum at Chicago, and you can watch this great video of her explaining her research and showing footage of these amazing communities.

It turns out that lots of critters just love a good piece of wood that sinks into the ocean. Boring clams (not the yawn kind of boring), squat lobsters, crabs, worms, and of course limpets can take advantage of this woody nutritional resource from the surface.  Some of them consume the wood and digest it with help from microbes in the gut (kind of like termites), while others graze on the bacteria growing on the wood, and predators are also drawn to these rich environments with a higher concentration of potential prey.

Will the creatures living on decomposing plants care how old they are in evolutionary time?

So, we know there’s high potential for plant material in the ocean to support a diversity of specialized creatures, but beyond that, we still know very little of the ecology of these systems and how these communities have evolved through time.  One question that I’m interested in is whether the kind of wood matters to the critters that are living on it.  Do the physical composition of the wood? Is there a link between older groups of plants and older lineages of animals, which would suggest the animals in the ocean have responded evolutionarily to the evolutionary succession of plants on land? For instance, critters living on Ginkgo (a gymnosperm) would be older lineages than those living on Oak (an angiosperm).

Luckily, I have a chance to try and test these ideas, since that’s what we do in science, test ideas and explore possible explanations! So, to do this, I have acquired plant material from nine different species and I have three pieces of each (and one lonely chunk of tree fern).

I had either 3 logs or three bundles like these for each plant species, depending on the nature of the plant.

Weighing and measuring a chunk of Ginkgo

I have sewn them into mesh laundry bags, labelled them with yellow cattle tags (so I can round up and ID the lil’ doggies when I come back for them), and taken their measurements.  I took them all down to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute two weeks ago, and everything is all set and ready to go! In fact, I embark tomorrow on a six day research cruise, on which half of a day will be spent deploying my woody packets into 3200m of water.  The other days will be spent at other sites on other projects and it promises to be a very interesting and exciting trip out to sea, my first multi-day aquatic voyage! I’ll write a post following up on the cruise when I’m back, but feel free to tell me what you think of this project and ask any questions in the comments section! I will have intermittent internet access, so I may be even able to answer questions and post some updates from sea!

Logs and bundles are tagged and ready to go!

Ikimasho! That means, “Let’s go!” in Japanese ;)

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10 thoughts on “Why land plants matter to deep-sea critters

  1. Sven

    Nice- I remember the 3D modelling of the Limpet at the DSBS Wellington. That struck me at the time, as a very interesting way to teach biology apart from it’s research merit alone. One small correction to this article- Idas washingtonia is currently considered to fall into the bathymodiolan mussel clade in the deep-sea (albeit a very small species). It’s not a clam (sorry).

    • Thanks for the edit, Sven! As someone who focuses on gastropods, sometimes I slip up with the bivalves, I knew Idas was a a mussel, woops! Glad you found the 3D talk memorable. You’re right, that would be a nice tool for teaching, especially paired with dissection. It was nice meeting you in Wellington, interesting work going on with the symbionts, hoping we can figure out how that works for the limpets someday!

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