Underwater tropical twilight zone explored with Museum's ROV

08 March 2012

Take a trip to the twilight zone. No, not a spooky place in another dimension, but an area 50 to 150m below the ocean surface in the Bahamas called the coral twilight zone. Scientists begin exploring it this week with the Natural History Museum's ROV (remotely-operated vehicle), and will be sending back daily updates in blogs, videos and more.

REX, the Museum's remotely operated underwater vehicle

REX, the Museum's remotely operated underwater vehicle

Scientists from the Museum and the University of Southampton are researching this little-explored area of the ocean off a remote island in the Bahamas.

They are investigating what kind of creatures live there and observing them alive in their natural habitat - they're almost certain to find sharks as the waters of the Bahamas have recently been declared a shark sanctuary

They are also collecting the results of an experiment that they hope will have enticed strange bone-eating worms.

REX the ROV
Bone-eating snot-flower worms, Osedax mucofloris, living off decaying whale bones on the seabed

Bone-eating snot-flower worms, Osedax mucofloris, living off decaying whale bones on the seabed

The Museum's ROV is called REX, which is short for Remotely-operated vehicle for Education and eXploration.

REX uses the latest HD technology and will be sending back high definition images and video straight from the twilight zone. It will be the first time REX has ventured to a depth of 200m.

Blogging and videos

Nature Live host Ivvet Modinou is travelling with the scientists and reporting back as the team perform their cutting-edge research. She is giving daily updates via a blog, video clips and 3 live video-link events at the Museum. 

This is part of the Museum’s Field work with Nature Live that began last month, following scientists as they investigated plant biodiversity in Costa Rica.  There are also videoconferences for schools. 

The 3 baskets were laid at different ocean depths in the Bahamas October 2011 to attract bone-eating

The 3 baskets of whale bone were laid at different ocean depths in the Bahamas in October 2011 to attract bone-eating worms.

‘It’s really exciting that we are able to engage our visitors and schools with Museum science, live, while it’s happening on the other side of the planet,' says Ivvet.

Bone-eating worm experiment

Bone-eating worms belong to the Osedax genus and live off decaying whale bones that have fallen to the sea floor. 

Last October the team laid whale bone bait to try to attract them and on this trip they are going back to collect the results.

The bones were laid at depths of 19m, 30m and 55m, and this last one was at the edge of a trench, and the scientists are hoping that it won't have fallen into the abyss.

One of the underwater experiments in the Bahamas

One of the underwater experiments in the Bahamas

Osedax worms have been found in most of the oceans where they have been looked for. However, no one has found them in the Caribbean so far. This will be the first Osedax record in tropical waters if the team do find them in.

Meet some of the team

Museum marine biologist Adrian Glover is on the field trip and was part of the team that discovered and described the first of the bone-eating worms, Osedax mucofloris, in 2005. 

Adrian says, 'Although our main science goal is the retrieval of a set of important colonisation experiments, I am secretly most excited about taking our little underwater robot "REX" to its deepest depth rating, 200m.'

Close-up of the feathered plumes, or gills of a bone-eating worm

Close-up of the feathered plumes, or gills, of a bone-eating worm. The worm uses them to take oxygen down to its root structure, which is embedded in the bone.

Museum zoologist Nick Higgs studies the animals that live on dead whale skeletons and how this affects the formation of whale fossils. Last October he was involved in research that revealed how to detect traces of bone-eating worms in fossils that were millions of years old.

Zoologist Leigh Marsh is from the University of Southampton and was part of the team who discovered the 'Hoff' crab living on deep sea hydrothermal vents, widely reported in the news at the start of this year.

The Bahamas Field work with Nature Live trip runs until 14 March 2012. The free Nature Live events are on 8, 9 and 10th March.

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