Fears that the remains of vessels such as Ernest Shackleton’s ship, crushed by the Antarctic ice, had fallen victim to marine life in the depths of the ocean have been discounted following groundbreaking research by marine biologists at Aberdeen University, together with scientists at London’s Natural History Museum and Gothenburg University in Sweden.
They have discovered that wood-eating molluscs, capable of destroying the wreck, are nowhere to be found in Antarctica. Now the scientists hope their breakthrough discovery could eventually lead to an expedition being mounted to recover the lost vessel, abandoned by Shackleton’s Imperial Trans Antarctic Expedition when the vessel became trapped in ice floes in the Weddell Sea.
The team of international experts ruled out the presence of wood-eating marine life in the Antarctic after monitoring a series of planks left in the ocean off Deception Island and recovered in almost pristine condition, despite being submerged at sea for 12 months.
Dr Alan Jamieson, from Aberdeen University’s Oceanlab, said the discovery could open up an entirely new field of Antarctic exploration.
He said: “The planks were pretty much untouched apart from a tiny bit of bacterial growth. We are hoping that the results of our study might spark interest by somebody who has the money to mount an expedition to recover the wreck of the Endurance.”
He added: “Before the study, we were pretty sure there were no wood-eating creatures in that part of the world because there is not a lot of wood kicking around there, but this is the first time that anyone has tested that hypothesis and found there is nothing there at all.”
During the scientists’ same expedition, they discovered two new species of rare whalebone-eating Osedax worms in the deep Antarctic waters. But there was no trace of their cousins, the wood-eating Xylophagainae bivalve mollusc, found in other parts of the world’s oceans.
Dr Jamieson said the discovery of the whalebone-eating worms was significant. He said: “These are beautiful examples of animals that live on this planet that we know virtually nothing about. They can only survive on the bones of dead whales.
“They bore into the bone and take root so they look more like plants – but they are worms.”
Dr Adrian Glover, the lead researcher from the Natural History Museum in London, said: “Whilst we were excited by the discovery of the first new Osedax worms from Antarctica, we were even more intrigued by the perfectly preserved wood.
“It occurred to us the dramatic contrast between the heavily consumed bone and the pristine wood was indicative of how the Antarctic is relatively isolated from other ocean basins – the tiny larvae of the wood-eating worms could not reach the Antarctic from nearby continents.”
He added: “A new DNA analysis of the Osedax worms also revealed that the seven described species in the genus are most closely related to the tiny mud-dwelling ‘beard worms’ that use specialist bacteria to consume chemicals in oxygen-poor muds.
“This provides new clues as to how these bizarre animals evolve. Perhaps at some point after whales first appeared in the oceans, ancestral worms were able to make the evolutionary leap from sulphidic muds to whale carcasses.”