Watch out Australia, the zombie worms are here.
The blood-red, faceless worms with a craving for bones instead of brains have been found in Australian waters for the first time in a deep-sea abyss off the east coast.
After hauling up the skull and spine of a pilot whale lying four kilometres underwater just off the northern New South Wales seaside town of Byron Bay, scientists discovered the worms burrowed deep inside the bones and sucking on the marrow.
The 1cm long worms have previously been found in parts of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans but never off the Australian coast.
Scientists believe they have been around for millions of years and once feasted on the bones of aquatic dinosaurs.
The worms were among hundreds of new and rarely seen marine creatures discovered by the team of 58 scientists, technicians and crew during a month-long voyage, which ended in Brisbane yesterday.
Dr Tim O’Hara, the chief scientist on board and Museum Victoria’s senior curator of marine invertebrates, described the worms as an exciting find given their unusual way of feeding.
The worms lack a proper mouth and instead use tentacles to devour bone marrow after it has been broken down by bacteria.
“They’re just living in a soup of bacteria and sucking up the nutrients,” Dr O’Hara said.
“They’ve been a fascinating story in marine biology really because everyone’s wondered how they get from one skeleton to another.
“Scientists have been looking at that for a few years and found they are everywhere in the plankton just waiting for a whale to fall to a sea floor.”
The exploratory voyage by the Museums Victoria and CSIRO scientists marked the first time the murky depths of the abyss have been studied.
A metal sled-style device attached to 8km of wire was plunged into abyss each day to collect samples of marine creatures.
About 10 new types of eels were discovered along with several unique crustaceans, sea stars and sea cucumbers.
Rarely-seen creatures including a blob fish dubbed the world’s ugliest fish tripod fish with long spikes sticking out of their fins, and a type of faceless fish not found in Australian waters for more than a century were also collected.
“There’s a lot of new forms of life here and we are really adding to our knowledge of the biodiversity of the deep,” Dr O’Hara said.
However, while the scientists were impressed by the creatures they found, they were disturbed by the amount of rubbish including paint tins, fishing lines and other items dating back to the days of steamships.
Much of their marine haul will be displayed in museums across Australia and overseas as a way of “bringing the deep sea to the people”, Dr O’Hara said.
More exploratory voyages of the abyss are being planned, including one focused on the little-known habitats of its rocky sea mountains. AAP