Of fairy rings and other mysteries

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’[1] 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.


R.R.S. Challenger: famous for making the most hardened oceanographers lose their lunch – now out of service.

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”[3], 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.

Best wishes
Tony Rice

This post was first published on Nature Network, which has since been discontinued. The original post has been moved to SciLogs.

About steffi suhr

Once upon a time, I was an enthusiastic and hopeful biological oceanographer who did a bunch of work in the Antarctic. I was alternately wearing labcoats or extreme weather clothing and hard hats, but have long since swapped survival suits for dress suits and do science management, currently as the BioMedBridges project manager at the European Bioinformatics Institute. I still like to use my brain. I'm a German serial expat, currently - again - living in the UK.
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20 Responses to Of fairy rings and other mysteries

  1. Heather Etchevers says:

    LIKE. At 21:39 UTC+1.

  2. Henry Gee says:

    Steffi: that’s just completely amazing. That there can exist these highly organized-looking trails and no-one really knows what made them. Ah, the secrets of the sea.

  3. steffi suhr says:

    See why I had to keep that photograph?
    I really should dig in old moving boxes more often.

  4. steffi suhr says:

    P.S. What also amazes me is that this – like many other things in deep-sea biology – is just ‘one of those things’ that at least old hands know about, but which nobody has the time or resources to look into. I fear that this art of thorough observation is going out of the window, though.
    On a practical note: it would be rather difficult to find the critter that does this – you’d need quite a sophisticated ROV and basically incredible luck to find one of these rings when you are looking for it.

  5. Åsa Karlström says:

    Steffi: I think it is a HUGE fish/dragon with their mouth open and the blobbs are the teeth/outline of the mouth. Or, it’s small worms/shell fish or something like that that move in the sand…. of course, the first one is slight more evil ;)
    But in any event, considering my imagination, I would never be part of the diving/camera team. Way too scary. Even if I do think it is very cool with all those things that live beneath the sea. It’s just that it is a tad bit scary too… although, I guess they are living too deep to actually be a threat to a little swimmer on the surface?! :)
    And the email was fun to read. I have stumbled across lecturers at cruises (only read about them since I haven’t been on any cruises…. yet) and sort of wondered how they get the gig. I guess being part of “scientist team working with marine biology” isn’t a bad thing when you look into getting that job….

  6. steffi suhr says:

    Hey Åsa – I like that idea of a ‘sea dragon’ causing that pattern. I just wonder where the little mound comes from that you see in the top left corner :)
    Yes, 4050 m is a bit deep for a diver. I’d love to go down there in a submersible, but realise that a lot of people find that idea scary. It’s by no means as scary as it used to be, though….
    The cruise ship gig is a favourite also with people who retire from various Antarctic programs (I know several from the USAP and one from BAS).

  7. Ken Doyle says:

    Aliens. It’s got to be aliens. We are not alone!

  8. Kristi Vogel says:

    I suspect the tracks are made by a deep sea Jeremy Clarkson, driving an abyssal Bugatti Veyron. Wouldn’t be the first Veyron that’s ended up in the drink, either.
    There’s a chance I might be wrong, however. :-)

  9. Austin Elliott says:

    Nice post. Oceanographic and especially deep-sea research definitely retains a lot of that “mystery of the world’s unexplored hidden places” feel. I remember this from spending Summers in Woods Hole as a child in the late 60s when my dad was working at the MBL – one of the big things we used to hope to catch sight of was the oceanographic vessel that carried Alvin the deep-sea submarine about.

  10. Henry Gee says:

    I’ve got it – these fairy rings are underwater crop circles.

  11. steffi suhr says:

    I thought of a solution for the mound following Åsa’s suggestion: the sea dragon has a tongue piercing.

  12. Alejandro Correa says:

    Åsa: _ think it is a HUGE fish/dragon with their mouth open and the blobbs are the teeth/outline of the mouth_
    I invite you to read my brief scientific note of Pejeperro:

    This is in Catalan. Is surrealist. Mike has learned catalan if you have any doubts or directly from the author.

  13. Alejandro Correa says:

    Uff! sorry Asa: Pejepero

  14. steffi suhr says:

    Wow, those are some teeth, Alejandro! Found it in FishBase.

  15. Alejandro Correa says:

    Thank! for your link Steffi.

  16. Cath Ennis says:

    Any talk of submersibles reminds me of the untimely death of some brave divers in The Kraken Wakes (shudders).

  17. steffi suhr says:

    Having never read that, I just educated myself with the wikipedia entry.
    there are even indications of [the aliens] digging a tunnel deep underground to connect the Atlantic and the Pacific
    Well, that’s just stupid – they would have messed up the entire deep water circulation. They had to be stopped.

  18. Kristi Vogel says:

    I was toying with the idea of a submersible research vessel theme for an International Fake Journal Month project this year. Now I think I’m inspired to actually go through with it – thanks, Steffi! ;-)

  19. steffi suhr says:

    Heh – glad to be of service Kristi, and thanks for the link!

  20. Pingback: Of traces and imprints: from the moon to the deep blue sea | Steffi Suhr « News in Briefs