Riftia Pachyptila, Not Your Average Earthworm

By Jeanethe Falvey

Two weeks ago, NOAA made my day. Their photo submission from their 2011 Okeanos Expedition to the Galapagos Islands took the prize for the deepest photo submitted to State of the Environment in one fell swoop.

In 1977, as Documerica was heading into the National Archives not to be found again for decades, something else was discovered in a deep sea abyss that changed our thinking about life on Earth altogether.

A group of geologists embarked on a journey to the Galapagos to see what more there was to the deep sea floor in an area where two of our planet’s tectonic plates meet. Back then, it was understood that sea floor volcanoes existed, but they wanted a closer look to see if they could find active hydrothermal vents (think deep sea hot springs).

Geologists by trade do not study life forms. That is reserved for biologists and people-watchers and there were no biologists onboard. There was no intention to study life down there. Life, it was presumed, could not exist in such an environment.

A mile and a half down, it’s rather dark. The pressure is also immense. Just see what a fraction of that depth does to a Styrofoam cup. Two years later in ‘79, another expedition recorded vents gushing out minerals at a balmy 660°F. It was enough to char poor Alvin’s temperature probe.

That inhospitable, downright frightening place is prime real estate for riftia pachyptila, also known as tubeworms that can grow as large as eight ft tall! They must love it down there.

In 2011, humans are still studying these curious creatures. NOAA’s most recent expedition may have found the largest colony of these giant worms ever observed, with other species living among them too. The image was courtesy of the NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program, Galapagos Rift Expedition, taken on September 1, 2011. It was not the same tubeworm colony originally found; that group appears to have been buried in underwater volcanic activity. Just another reminder that our environment is a dynamic and ever changing place.

I hope you take moment to wonder about these overlooked survivors of the deep and share photos of the environment you’re discovering near you.

About the author: Jeanethe Falvey writes from EPA’s Office of External Affairs and Environmental Education as the project-lead for State of the Environment, a photo documentary geared towards inspiring a greater connection to our environment.

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