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Sea floor explorers startled when tubeworm ‘popped out like a jack in the box’ off NC

One of the most forbidding ocean-floor environments off North Carolina — a methane gas seep — has been found to host a type of foot-long tubeworm never before seen along the East Coast, researchers say.

The worms, which experts say have no mouth or anus, thrive on hydrogen sulfide, which is “toxic to humans and smells like rotten eggs,” according to NOAA’s Ocean Exploration and Research division.

Researchers stumbled on the worms (known as vestimentiferan tubeworms) by accident this month, while using a remotely operated vehicle to pull up a rock, officials said.

Suddenly, “a tubeworm popped out like a jack in the box,” Amanda Demopoulos, a U.S. Geological Survey research ecologist and chief scientist on the expedition, said in a news release from NOAA.

“The worm appeared seemingly out of nowhere. It was hidden from view, buried in a crevice within the larger rock,” Demopoulos said.

More were found the next day, proving it wasn’t an isolated incident, NOAA officials said.

The worms are living in methane seeps off Pea Island and Kitty Hawk, “less than 50 miles off the coast of North Carolina,” according to NOAA. Such cold seeps are “areas of the seafloor where hydrogen sulfide, methane, highly saline water, and other hydrocarbon-rich fluids escape” in bubble-filled columns.

Prior to the discovery, the closest tubeworms were believed to live in Cayman Trough and Barbados, NOAA said. Experts say the tubeworms found off N.C. have no gut, relying instead on a bacteria to “convert hydrogen sulfide into food.”

“These tubeworms are a significant finding,” Michael Rasser, marine ecologist with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, said in a statement.

“The more we know about these sensitive habitats, the better we can ultimately use science to inform any future decisions to ensure their protection,” he said in the release.

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