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Researchers pinpoint how tubeworm babies are dispersed to colonize new vent sites

ergy the babies have, the scientists assessed the proteins and lipids in a tubeworm egg and the rate at which this fuel is used. From these studies, they determined that baby tubeworms have an average life span of about 38 days.

We were surprised by this, says Marsh. Other creatures that live in extreme environments, such as Antarctic sea urchins, have much longer early life stages, lasting several months.

How far can baby tubeworms travel in 38 days? To answer that question, the researchers needed to account for both vertical and horizontal movement. Through a combination of lab studies and field work at vent sites along the East Pacific Rise off Mexico, they found that the larvae are almost neutrally buoyant. Like most fish, they can maintain a steady position in the water no matter where the currents take them. In this case, the larvae are likely to first be entrained in the plumes of water that rise 175 meters (574 ft) above the vents as the super-heated water rockets out of the Earth and mixes with the cold seawater.

Then deep-sea currents move the larvae along. The scientists assessed the speed and direction of this flow by positioning current meters 175 meters above the ocean floor at their test site and on a nearby ocean ridge. To estimate the dispersal potential of the tubeworm larvae, they used computers to model the movement of neutrally buoyant particles released at hourly intervals into the observed flow pattern.

We were at the point where we could say that if a tubeworm larva this tiny speck was released at 9 a.m. on a certain day, we could determine where it would be at 3 p.m., says Marsh.

After several months of studies, the scientists concluded that baby tubeworms rarely travel farther than 100 kilometers (62 miles). While this distance may seem pretty substantial to most of us, Marsh says it's not much when you consider that active vent sites are a fairly rare occurrence on the ocean floor.

"Even at the
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Contact: Tracey Bryant
tbryant@udel.edu
302-831-8185
University of Delaware
1-May-2001


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