We Can Thank Mucus For Cleaning Our Oceans

If you've been following the AL blog long enough, you probably know that I'm in love with the ocean and one of my favorite things to explore on the blog are all the crazy things we're learning about the ocean every day. Earlier this month, the journal of Science Advances, published an article on "the role of giant larvaceans in oceanic carbon cycling." If it sounds dry, it really isn't. Mostly because, ya know, giant larvaceans are pretty snotty. 

Link Link

The ones we're talking about today are called "Bathochordaues". These alien-looking creatures have a little mouth, almost too little to function - so it "outsources" the actual filtration process required to feed. 

So, what is their filtration system since their mouth is so little? Well, it's a little graphic...and mucusy. Every day, the creatures blows a huge, sticky, mucus balloon. Throughout the day, the balloon snags all kinds of goodies, as animals drift through it. Each trapped morsel contains a little bit of carbon. Once the creature is full, it discards and unlatches the snot bubble and the bubble begins to sink. Thus, some of the carbon trapped within the bubble descends to the sea floor.

This sinking carbon appears to play a monumental role in supporting deep-sea life. How? Well, by transferring carbon it can be buried and stored long term. Given larvaceans abundance in other parts of the world, "these organisms likely play a crucial role in the global carbon cycle."

While these snot bubbles are just asking to be studied - but, because they're mucus...they're super hard to "catch" and study. In fact, they're so delicate that they tend to disintegrate, even at the slightest touch. This means that putting them in a jar, or catching them in a net, is damn near impossible. 

But, luckily, humans are almost as ingenious as the ocean and the Monterey Bay Area Research Institute (MBARI) decided to develop a technology to make this strange substance easier to analyze and study. 

It's called the "Particle Image Velocimetry" (PIV). Typically, it is used to study how water moves...but they adapted it to work more acutely to snot bubbles. They attached a PIV laser, with camera, to an ROV and sent it into the depths of the Californian coast.

When the camera of the ROV finally spotted a larvacean, the researchers activated the PIV laser. This laser spread a thin sheet of light over the animal, its dwelling, and every particle inside the snot bubble.

It was also proven that, through this process larvaceans can filter all of Monterey bay’s water from about '300 to 1,000 feet deep in less than two weeks, making them the fastest known zooplankton filter feeders'.

This is a huge leap forward in being able to analyze all kinds of deep-sea research, which I definitely expect to see some updates in the next few months.


The above image is from the NOAA Photo Library's Flickr Account. It is liscensed under Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).