I am a marine biologist with wide ranging interests based around the ecology of the sea-bed environment, currently that of the deep-sea.
My most recent work has been at the interface of marine biology and palaeontology, investigating how biological processes affect the fossilisation of organic remains in the marine realm, especially large vertebrate carcasses such as whales and dolphins. Additionally I have carried out research in the shallow tropical waters of the Bahamas and have an active interest in the fisheries there and the continuing problem of invasive lionfish.
This is an important question because the answers will help us to interpret the fossil record of whales, one of the best examples of macro-evolution that we have.
Occasionally dead whales will wash up on the shore but more often than not they fall to the seabed in the deep ocean. In this food-poor habitat the carcasses represent a food bonanza; 200 years worth of food arriving all at once. These “whale-falls” attract a diverse array of creatures from sleeper sharks to ‘snow-boarding’ worms and are considered oases of diversity in the deep sea. Once the meat has been eaten the bones leach out oil that can fuel chemosynthesis (as opposed to photosynthesis) based communities for decades!
Osedax worms sticking out of their borings in a whale bone © N. Higgs, 2010
I study some of the weirdest animals from these habitats, Osedax worms. This specialised group makes a living by boring into and eating the whale bones – and they do this without any mouth, gut or hard parts! I look at how they bore into the bone and what these borings look like. The NHM has the perfect tools for looking at this. Using its micro-CT scanner I can explore the bones in 3-D and see just how the worms make their borings.
Since these worms only live on whale bones in the deep sea it is suggested that they evolved at the same time as the whales (~35 million years ago). However, before the great whales, there were also huge marine reptiles roaming the oceans. Could these carcass provided food for Osedax? Armed with information on what the Osedax borings look like I hope to explore fossil whale and reptile bones to see if I can find traces of this bone-eating worm in the fossil record.
Explaining a CT scan of Osedax borings to museum visitors
2012 - Expedition to the twilight zone - NHM fieldtrip to the Bahamas with our micro-RoV, REX
2008 - Patterns of brittle star diversity in the deep-sea
2008 - Reproduction of an Antarctic clam, Adacnarca nitens
2007 - Reproduction of wood-boring worms, Xylophaga, in the deep-sea
The latest news and resources can be found at www.nickhiggs.com
2012-Present: Postdoctoral Research Assistant for the World Register of Deep-Sea Species
2007 (summer) Research Intern for Dr. Gordon Paterson, Natural History Museum, London
2004-2008: MSci (First Class Hons.) Marine Biology, NOC, University of Southampton