I just came back up from our cellar, where I was looking through a couple of cardboard boxes that I hadn’t opened since we moved from Colorado. The boxes are full of research papers on benthic foraminifera, left over from my days of doing science. I ventured down there because a researcher from Sweden wants to have a reprint of one of my papers, and I don’t have an electronic file of it (I will after this).
Turns out the paper wasn’t in either of the two boxes, but in a much more readily accessible place in our living room. But it was worth looking through the old stuff anyway, because I found treasure – this photograph of a ‘fairy ring’ on the Porcupine Abyssal Plain:
There is a handwritten text on the back of the photograph:
“FAIRY RING” burrow at 4050 m depth on the Porcupine Abyssal Plain. This type of sea-floor feature, consisting of a ring of holes or depressions, sometimes up to a metre in diameter, have been photographed at abyssal depths in many parts of the world. So far, the animal or animals responsible have not been identified.”
The photo was taken with the bathysnap (a camera that is deployed to the seafloor for up to one year and takes pictures at regular time intervals) sometime in late September 1981 on cruise number 14/81 of the R.R.S. Challenger.
I had found this photo many years ago under a big, unsorted pile of papers that had been left behind by Tony Rice after his retirement from George Deacon Division (formerly of the Institute of Oceanographic Sciences, now at the NOCS). It was 1998 and I
had been hired for slave labour had a technician job in the division, to tide me over until I could start my PhD. One of my first tasks was to clean out Tony’s lab, which included sending loaned specimens back to various institutes all over the world and sorting through the abandoned papers2. Tony was the Chief Scientist on the cruise that picture was taken on, and I am quite sure it is his handwriting on the back.
To this day, nobody is really sure what critter causes these “rings of up to 10 small holes sometimes surrounding a central hole in a low mound”, but the general assumption is that they’re caused by enteropneusts. I am not sure anyone is even looking at this specifically – there is just so much other stuff to do.
In a recent post, Henry wrote about the wonders of the weirder creatures that live on this planet. Many of them live in the most remote locations, so there will probably always be enough left to discover.
1 Named after the similar-looking phenomenon known from mushrooms.
2 If anyone wants to claim that photograph, I’ll happily return it. If not, I promise to keep looking after it and treasure it as one of my most valuable memorabilia.
3 Tuck, I. (1995). Unidentified burrow surface trace from the clyde sea area Netherlands Journal of Sea Research, 34 (4), 331-335 DOI: 10.1016/0077-7579(95)90042-X
Update 22 February 10, 12:00 UTC
I had an e-mail from Tony Rice today, in answer to my e-mail from yesterday asking for absolution ‘after the fact’ (posted here with his permission):
How nice to hear from you after all this time Steffi. But it was a touch embarassing to be reminded of the mess I left behind when I retired. I suppose its too late to say sorry. Goodness knows (but I don’t want to!) what else you came across. Thankfully, I was never involved in anything as important as climate change because my record keeping would certainly not stand up to close scrutiny.
I was delighted to see the resurrected “fairy ring” story. It reminds me of the wonderful truth in the lines from Thomas Gray’s Elegy written in a country church yard. “Full many a Gem of purest ray serene, the dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear: full many a flower is born to blush unseen, and waste its sweetness on the desart air”. What a wonderful and surprising world we live in.
I am still trying to pass this message on, now as a lecturer on cruise ships would you believe. As a direct consequence, my latest contibution to the literary world, Do whales get the bends, tries to answer some of the questions I’ve been asked on the 22 cruises my wife and I have been on over the last 5 years. Life is still good fun.
This post was first published on Nature Network, which has since been discontinued. The original post has been moved to SciLogs.