Adrian Glover (Zoology) and Helena Wiklund have also been awarded a Marie Curie Intra-European Fellowship for Helena to work on deep sea biology. This Marie Curie scheme, funded by the European Union, allows experienced EU researchers to work in other EU countries to develop skills and collaboration, producing high-quality science. The NHM bids successfully for funds to a wide range of research funding agencies each year in the UK and elsewhere.
They will be working on worms in the deep sea: the last unexplored frontier on Earth, where in recent years many hundreds of new species have been discovered. We are familar with shallow coastal seas affected by tidal currents, richly productive and fertile. In contrast, the deep sea has many areas where nutrients are scarce, cold and subject to high pressure, deep ocean basins over 4 kilometres below the surface. The lives of organisms in the deep sea are often very different from those of related species near the surface.
A key question in deep-sea biology is that of whether and how deep-sea animals are able to disperse. Many organisms, such as worms, have limited abilty to move over any distance as adults: some have planktonic young that can be carried over distance by currents.
The dominant idea for the deep sea has been one of cosmopolitanism: that animals are relatively mobile at certain stages of their lfe cycle and have easy access to all ocean basins around the world. However, this has been recently challenged and for many species there may be barriers to dispersal in the form of substrate specialisation (the requirement to live in particular types of sediment) limited mobility or particular reproductive characteristics.
This study will target one of the most abundant and species-rich groups, the polychaetes. To answer questions of dispersal and evolution in the deep sea Helena will study three contrasting groups of polychaetes:one group with mobile planktonic larvae; a second group with direct-developing larvae, similar in form to the adults; and a third group, the newly discovered genus of ’bone-eating’ worms, Osedax, that are sessile (non-mobile) and exist on the most specialised of habitats – whale bones on the sea floor. (One of which, Osedax mucofloris, was a NHM species of the day in 2010)
The study will use molecular data (such as from DNA analysis) from material from several ocean basins to construct phylogenies (evolutionary trees) to evaluate the relationships within the three groups. It will have great value in understanding species formation, population connections and the processes that drive biodiversity in the deep sea.