Dr. Greg Rouse is an expert in the wild and fantastical life forms that live at the bottom of the sea. He can glance at a tiny worm writhing in a microscope image and identify it as easily as you would know your own brother across the room. He has been a traveler in deep and cold ocean bottom all around the world, from Greenland to Australia, sometimes actually going down himself into the darkness in submarines or by diving, and sometimes “visiting” by means of dropping down drags and scoops, and bringing up the residents and their worlds for investigation in the laboratory. On this voyage he has dropped a box core sampling device to 1500 feet, nearly a third of a mile, and brought a perfect square of bottom mud up the surface for examination, somewhat like lifting a whole city block of houses up to another world, complete with intact buildings, forests, and all the people who live in that place. In this case the place is the deep ocean, and the buildings are holes and layers in the mud, the trees of the “forest” have trunks formed from chains of bacteria, the “grass” is a felt-like carpet of entwined strands of bacteria, and the residents themselves are tiny animals making their living in this place at the bottom of the ocean where a human, or even most fish and other familiar ocean creatures, could not possibly survive for a second.
This is a place akin to the fantasy world in the book “James and the Giant Peach,” where worms in the garden attain tremendous size due to a pesticide application error, and scale is warped from what we are used to. In our undersea world, the bacteria that are examined by Dr. Rouse and others under the microscope are growing even larger than the animals that graze among them. This is a world with very little oxygen, the life-giving element so ubiquitous in most of the rest of the world, and thus is different than nearly anything found on land. There are only five animals known to inhabit this hostile world, and one of the main purposes of this voyage is to discover what these animals are eating, and how they live in this world of bacteria, which is layered not only the environment but also the skins of many of the animal residents as well, like a thick winter coat, giving them a whitish appearance. Four of these animals are worms, and one is a snail, looking similar to something you might find in a garden, but smaller and more fragile in this still world without gravity, and sporting a coat of red bacterial paint. These incredibly tough gastropods can come up from 1500 feet, where the pressure on their bodies is about 40 times the air pressure of the surface, and still crawl around on the surface. They will be preserved by Dr. Rouse, brought back to the lab for genetic analysis by the chief scientist Mindi Summers, who will hopefully add to our knowledge of how these ecosystems function without either oxygen or light.
There are worlds within our planet that few or us are even aware of, but they are actually here, just a few miles west of the human chaos of the Los Angeles airport. There are deep-ocean animals living here in their own ways, just as they have been for million of years, free of the oxygen that we all require for our survival, interacting in complex and unknown ways, and attaining beautiful and creative life forms that we are only just now learning about. These animals might look like alien life forms, but they are not – they are residents on this planet just as we are, and in fact have generally been down here longer than we humans have been walking the earth. On this oceanographic research voyage we have reached down and touched a tiny corner of their world, and with Dr. Rouse as our translator and ambassador, we have stepped briefly into the living rooms of these tiny animals, and witnessed a small part of their lives . . .
Thanks to Dr. Greg Rouse, Professor and Curator of the Benthic Invertebrates Collection, Scripps Institution of Oceanography