Kevin Zelnio

/ by Kevin Zelnio /

On the allure of the ocean's novelty.

A deep-sea, hydrothermal vent community, which includes a new species of shrimp.

I am a deep-sea biologist. My job isn’t nearly as glamorous as it is often depicted in National Geographic or on TV. It’s difficult work; the sea is rough and unforgiving, the air bites and tastes of salt, and the pay is anything but attractive. Three hundred and thirty days of my year are spent on land preparing for the other 35 days when I am actually at sea doing my job. It is work for neither the faint of heart nor the impatient.

But every time I go out onto the ocean I have the chance to discover creatures that no one else has ever seen. It probably seems weird that there still exist so many animals in the sea that humans have never found before. But though we long ago spread out to cover every landmass on Earth’s two-dimensional surface, we are only infrequent visitors to the three-dimensional oceans that surround us.

In my work I search primarily for invertebrates; from the squishy and quick to the shelled and slow moving. I sort through ooze, mud, sand, and rock shards to find them. When I bring a catch up to the surface, the smell of rotten eggs can be overpowering. Decomposition is rapid, so I have to work fast. My buckets usually contain dozens of creatures that I quickly sort: worms, snails, mussels, and the occasional crab, but I am most interested in shrimp.

After I organize my catches, I drop the shrimp I find one by one into a jar. I set aside the very few that look any different from the rest; every once in a while a shrimp appears larger with an orange tint and a distinct notch in its tail. But I can only wonder if I have discovered a new creature when I first see it. I have to wait until I scour the literature, and make sure nothing like it has ever been described by anyone else.

That is what the deep sea is like. Almost every collection brings up something that I have never seen; that few, if any, have ever found. It is an immense task, in an immense place, cataloging life in the planet’s largest ecosystem and trying to understand what drives its diversity. But its constant novelty and rewards keep me sorting through the muck even as my vision starts to blur with sweat and tears and my nostrils burn from the stench that hangs in the salt-encrusted air.

Kevin Zelnio is a graduate student researcher at Penn State University. He blogs at Deep Sea News on ScienceBlogs.

Originally published July 28, 2008

Tags ecology research

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