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Struggling for the Offspring in the Antarctic Sea

Por: | 02 de enero de 2014


By Rosa Martínez, University of Barcelona Press

Brooding is a usual behaviour in animals. However, to observe it in a marine worm is exceptional, particularly as it guards eggs from external threats. A group of experts from the Institute of Research in Biodiversity of the University of Barcelona (UB-IRBio) made this surprising discovery in high-latitude marine waters of the Antarctic.

On the icy-cold seafloor of the Southern Ocean, a research group led by Conxita Àvila (UB-IRBio) discovered a new species of marine worm, named Antarctonemertes riesgoae, which has a reproductive strategy unique in this group: it broods like hens. This peculiar species belongs to a particular group of worms — nemerteans — which are mainly found in marine waters.

UB experts found some 2–3 cm long cocoons brooded by female nemerteans in Antarctic latitudes. During reproduction, females secrete a very dense mucous through their body wall; it solidifies when it touches marine water and an elastic layer is formed. Once the cocoon is created, females lay eggs on it. Unexpectedly, they act in a non-passive way: when cocoons are disturbed, females show defensive behaviour and exit through the cocoons’ openings.

Generally, these worms, like other living beings, lay eggs but later they do not brood them. “To date, only two nemertean species were known to brood eggs”, says Sergi Taboada (UB). According to the research group, this exceptional behaviour is due to extreme Antarctic weather conditions. The strategy may result in an increase of reproductive success for many Antarctic species that can only reproduce during the polar summer. The scientific finding has been published in the journal Polar Biology; experts from the Spanish Institute of Oceanography (IEO), the University of Alcalá (Spain) and Harvard University (United States), among other institutions, collaborated in the research.

The group led by Professor Conxita Àvila develops the project Actiquim in Antarctica in order to analyse chemical ecology in marine invertebrates that inhabit Antarctic waters. The UB team also participated in the discovery of a new species of a bone-eating marine invertebrate, named Osedax deceptionensis. This species, together with the Osedax antarcticus, are the two first species of this type of marine worm found in Antarctica. In the world's remotest ocean waters, UB scientists keep on working to uncover Antarctica’s wonders from the depths to the sea.

Image: The study describes the unusual reproductive strategy of the species Antarctonemertes riesgoae  (Credit: Sergi Taboada, UB-IRBio).

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