Unraveling the mystery of neatly poked holes in Bering Sea's seafloor

Scientists discover that tiny crustaceans called amphipods are responsible for creating neat holes in the seafloor of the Bering Sea.
Kavita Verma
A huge grenadier swims by the burrow, which likely contains a long-spined sea urchin.
A huge grenadier swims by the burrow, which likely contains a long-spined sea urchin.

Wiley online library 

During a trip in the Bering Sea, scientists aboard the German research ship Sonne discovered rows of fascinating holes. After becoming perplexed by their origin, the team set out on a mission to identify the enigmatic creator.

Antarctic amphipods unveiled as culprits behind the enigmatic holes

The mysterious hole-makers were identified as amphipods after significant research and video evidence from four decades earlier. Similar to their counterparts in Antarctica, these tiny crustaceans can be seen creating tunnels in the seafloor and utilizing the burrows for various activities.

Scientists on board the German research vessel Sonne, came across an unexpected sight while on an excursion in the Bering Sea: a collection of precisely drilled holes on the bottom. The crew dug into their findings, carefully going through hundreds of photos taken by a towed camera to solve the enigma.

The photos showed definite rows of holes with an oval form and two to three centimeters in diameter. The team was puzzled about the origin of these odd structures until a fortunate discovery provided insight.

The scientists thoroughly examined the probable candidates since they believed adjacent animals might hold the key. Due to the holes' modest size and distinct shapes, worm burrows were quickly ruled out in favor of sea urchins.

Senckenberg Museum team member Angelika Brandt made a breakthrough during this procedure. She determined that a tiny crab might have made the holes. Brandt joyfully showed a video of an amphipod from Antarctica methodically excavating a burrow in an aquarium that had been taken decades previously.

The Antarctic amphipod and the one found in the Bering Sea are remarkably similar. Brandt's discovery further supported The scientists' idea, which gave them a sense of déjà vu.

Although scientists have not watched the Bering Sea amphipods creating the holes, they think they are probably eating sediment in nutrient-rich seabed areas while excavating tunnels. These 2 cm long crustaceans may use the burrows for spawning, giving their young a secure and nourishing habitat.

Significance beyond amphipods

These tunnels hold significance that goes beyond only the amphipods. They play a crucial role in promoting biodiversity on abyssal plains by creating niches that support other species. Even minor topographic changes, like a 30 cm-long burrow, can significantly impact an animal's habitat and interactions with its surroundings in the deep water, where most creatures are tiny.

This discovery gives scientists optimism because it opens the door to a better understanding of other puzzling scars and holes strewn over the ocean's depths. Researchers are enthralled by the underwater world's ongoing discovery of its hidden wonders, which motivates more exploration.

Study Abstract: 

Trails, burrows, and other “life traces” in sediment provide important evidence for understanding ecology—both of the maker and of other users—and behavioral information often lacking in inaccessible ecosystems, such as the deep sea or those that are already extinct. Here, we report novel sublinear rows of openings in the abyssal plains of the North Pacific, and the first plausible hypothesis for a maker of these constructions. Enigmatic serial burrows have now been recorded in the Pacific and Atlantic deep sea. Based on image and specimen evidence, we propose that these Bering Sea excavations represent amphipod burrows, while the maker of the previously known Mid-Atlantic Ridge constructions remains undetermined. We propose that maerid amphipods could create the Pacific burrows by eating–digging horizontally below the surface along a nutrient-rich layer in the sediment, making the serial openings above them as they go, for conveniently removing excavated sediment as the excavation progresses. These striking structures contribute to local biodiversity, and their maker could be considered a deep-sea ecosystem engineer.

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