When giant tube worms were discovered in the 1970s, they were like nothing that had ever been seen before, and scientists still find them fascinating.
That’s because they live in some of the harshest environments and, unlike almost all kinds of life on Earth, do not rely on the sun for energy. Most life on the planet relies on energy from the sun, mediated by phytoplankton and plants that convert carbon dioxide into sugars. But not in deep-sea vent communities.
Giant tube worms live in the Eastern Pacific Ocean more than a mile underwater. The ocean floor here is geologically quite active, and vents are forming and closing regularly. When a new vent forms, giant tube worms are among the first species to colonize the area, and their population can reach several thousand adult worms in a couple years. The worms form long tubes out of chitin, the same material that makes up the exoskeletons of insects, crabs, and lobsters
Larval worms will float through the ocean until they find an area that is chemically appropriate to settle down in. As larvae, the worms have mouths and digestive tracts, but these are lost once they settle down and develop. Instead, adults have a large sack that holds symbiotic chemosynthetic bacteria. These bacteria oxidize sulfur produced by the vents, providing energy for the worm.
You can learn more about amazing giant tube worms from Oceana’s marine wildlife encyclopedia.