Archaeology bombshell: Researchers shocking findings on Antarctic ‘zombie’ worms

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Ernest Shackleton’s famous ship, the Endurance, which he had to abandon in 1915 on his ill-fated Antarctic expedition, remained in very good condition on the ocean floor. Scientists claimed in 2013 that shipwrecks in the Antarctic remained well preserved because of the absence of “ship worms”. Adrian Glover from London’s Natural History Museum said that the currents that circle the Antarctic likely prevent the organisms from getting anywhere near the continent. This results in the remains of old wooden shipwrecks being remarkably well preserved despite languishing at the bottom of the sea.

Dr Glover said: “I think it’s a reasonable hypothesis to suggest Endurance is still in good condition, certainly based on our experiments and what we know about low microbial rates of degradation in the cold Antarctic deep sea.

“Marine archaeologists and historians have long dreamt of finding the wreck and recovering artefacts from Shackleton’s expedition.

“But I’m interested in how deep-sea ecosystems function and how they recycle large organic inputs.

“All that oak and pinewood down there would be an amazing experiment in itself, and it would be fascinating to see it.”

While studying the Antarctic, Dr Glover tested whether “zombie” worms (Osedax), that consume the skeletons of dead cetaceans, and their wood-eating cousins, could reach these ships.

After 14 months under water, the bones on the platforms were covered in zombie worms, including two previously undescribed species, but the wood was untouched.

The results supported the contention that the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, which sweeps around the White Continent, acts as a barrier to Xylophaga, preventing their larvae from entering the region.

Dr Glover explained the findings: “Previous research had suggested that Osedax had diverged from groups that inhabited sulphidic hydrothermal vents and cold hydrocarbon seeps.

“But as we added in more taxa and more genetic evidence, it implied they are more closely related to these mud-dwelling ‘beard’ worms.

“And that makes sense that the ancestor should be a sediment-dweller given what we think about the distribution of whale bones on the sea floor.”

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As for the famous Endurance wreck, David Mearns, from the UK-based company Blue Water Recoveries, said the new research reinforced his view that the vessel was in a good state.

He said: “She was badly holed in the stern by large chunks of ice that broke through the ship’s sides below the water line and caused her to flood.

“As the damage was too bad to be repairable, Sir Ernest was left with no other option than to abandon ship and set up camps on the ice.

“While Endurance will be a wreck, I expect to find her hull largely intact.

“She would have suffered additional impact damage when hitting the seabed, but I don’t expect this to be too bad.”

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