June 13, 2017

Discospirina foram
This foram in the genus Discospirina builds a test (shell) with mutlitple chambers. It is very flat and appears white as it is made up of calcium carbonate. A different foram species is attached to the top of Discospirina, using its shell as hard substrate. Other specimens of Discospirina collected on the voyage from depths of 2500 metres were as large as 1.5 centimeters. Image: Annekatrin Enge
Vaginulinidae foram
This Vaginulinidae foram has a calcareous test (shell) and at the end of the youngest (uppermost) chamber the aperature is visible from the side, allowing the pseudopods to collect food. Image: Annekatrin Enge

Blogging the abyss iconDay 30: Annekatrin Enge, University of Vienna

During the past weeks we have collected mud, sometimes more than we wanted, from the very bottom of the sea. Deep-sea mud – the greyish mass of very fine sediment that has accumulated over a very long time on the bottom of the oceans.

At first sight a square meter of seabed does not hold a lot of life in it. When the camera moves over the seafloor at 4000 metre depth you see some brittle stars, sea cucumbers or sea pens. But what is not caught with the artifical eye is the enormous mass of organisms too tiny to be seen or that live deeper in the sediment.

A group of organisms whose presence lays hidden on and below the sediment surface is foraminifera. Nicknamed 'forams' by those who study them, they are very small, single-celled organisms (kingdom: eukaryots) that build a solid chambered shell (test), either of calcium carbonate, or by glueing sediment particles together. Others appear almost 'naked' as their cell is surrounded only by an organic layer. They can extand their cytoplasm to the outside of the shell in form of retractable strands (so-called pseudopods) that are used to move around or to collect food particles.

Most forams have been around for more than 500 million years in the oceans, leaving them enough time to adapt to the cold and ever dark deep-sea regions where pressure is high and food is limited – like the Australian abyss.

So in the past weeks I had multiple chances to look at forams from sediment samples we recovered from depths between 2500 and 4000 m during this voyage. Living forams were present in every Brenke sled and box corer sample so far which is not surprising. Studies from other deep-sea sites have shown that you can find more than 100 forams on an sediment area the size of a 1 Euro coin. Although they are small, forams can make up half of the biomass on the seafloor (excluding bacteria) because they are so numerous.

Foram test
The test (shell) of an agglutinated foram. Forams glue mineral grains or other particles together to form a solid test (shell) which protects the cell body from the outside. (Scale is in mm) Image: Annekatrin Enge

In this deep-sea environment I have found an estimated total number of more than 50 different species so far, and many more might be added. Some forams I found have not been described for this depth or region yet, and specimens need to be checked more thoroughly back home in Vienna. In terms of species diversity and abundance, forams seem to be as important as other benthic (seafloor) groups found so far in the Australian abyss, which might have not seemed so at the first (macroscopic) sight.

Annekatrine Enge
Annekatrin Enge at the microscope the CSIRO RV Investigator voyage to Australia's eastern abyss. Annekatrin has found more than 50 different species of forams on the voyage. Image: Asher Flatt

Not only do we find many and different forams here in the Australian abyss, we also find many different forms or ways they build their tests. From the rigid orange tubes of the agglutinated species Hyperammina, to the soft sausage-shaped 'naked' allogromids, to the thick porcellaneous tests of Pyrgo that reminds one of a tiny white UFO.

Pyrgo foram
This Pyrgo species is a representative of so-called porcellaneous forams. It has a very thick shell of calcium carbonate that is called porcellanous. Image: Annekatrin Enge

What really stands out and has surprised several of us is the unusual size of some foram species that we found. In general most forams are in the size range of 100 µm to 1 mm. However some species that are present here are immediately and clearly visible in the sediment with the naked eye and appear rather gigantic. The size of several millimetres might not sound very surpring as other smaller-sized animals as scale worms or amphipods are also visible without the microscope. But in contrast to these higher animals groups with tissues and organs, a foram is still a single cell, yet some, such as Bathysiphon, can build tests larger than three centimetres.

Annekatrin's participation in the Investigator voyage is sponsored by INDEEP, the International network for scientific investigation of deep-sea ecosystems.

Hoeglundina forams
Two specimens of the genus Hoeglundina, photographed from different sides of the tests. The calcareous test consists of many chambers that are arranged in a spiral. Image: Annekatrin Enge
Unidentified forams
Three so-far unidentified forams of the same species within the group Allogromiida, found at 4000 m depths. These relatively simple forams have only one chamber which is surrounded by an organic layer that is soft and transparent. Image: Annekatrin Enge
Four forams from 4000 m
Four different foraminifera species from 4000 m depths, all larger than 5 mm. As shown, the test shape, colour, and chamber arrangement can vary considerably within this group. Image: Annekatrin Enge


Voyage date: 
Tuesday, June 13, 2017