09 December 2015

9 December: Santa Claus lives in the deep – just maybe

Life in the depths

Seventy per cent of the Earth’s surface is covered by water. We know very little about life in the deep. But marine biologist Katrine Worsaae from Department of Biology has been fishing at the bottom of the ocean and g´has found interesting things that turn our understanding of evolutionary history upside down. - But she is still looking for Santa Claus…

Maybe Santa Claus does not live at the North Pole or in Greenland, but at the bottom of the sea. Why not? No one has ever seen him ‘alive’ in the northern latitudes, at least not since Donald Duck and his three nephews chanced upon him among fur clothed Eskimos in a 1930 Disney film.

So instead, let us try to discover him in the depths, along with marine biologist Katrine Worsaae, who has been diving and conducting research around the globe. Perhaps we will discover a Christmas loving Poseidon steering an underwater sled with red-nosed dolphins in the harnesses. But the task will not be easy when about 70 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered by fresh, brackish and salt water.

It would be simple for Katrine Worsaae to play the role of ocean researcher in the great Santa Claus mystery. She is no stranger to diving deep, in 2006 for example, when she found herself off the Pacific coast of Australia, in the Coral Sea, while aboard Vædderen, a Danish expedition ship. The ship served as the base for Galathea 3, a Danish expedition charged with finding new plant and animal species. Beneath the ship’s keel, a column of water stretched 8000 meters down, but no Santa was to be found.

However, an abundance of many life forms was. In particular, the type of microscopic life that Worsaae specializes in, marine invertebrates (spineless animals). Her research focuses on these marine invertebrates and the origin of the nervous system – and she loves it:

"I love to delve into the techniques, the challenges, the variety, the aesthetics and detective work. Our studies focus on how things develop in the animal kingdom, where small steps are major milestones in the understanding of development, and often provide an entirely new perspective of current understandings of anatomy and evolution in the animal kingdom. Perhaps most of all, it has to do with finding answers and spending time on life’s most essential question – where and what do we come from?"

Katrine Worsaae and colleagues, including researchers from the US, struck the jackpot a couple of years ago when they discovered microscopic creatures at the bottom of the ocean that rewrote the day’s scientific understanding of evolutionary history: that humans, as beings, developed from one point of departure into something completely different in their fight for survival thanks to the fact that both the physical surroundings and fellow creatures around them changed as well.

The focal point of this jackpot is known as the zombie worm (osedax), an animal that lives deep beneath the surface and feeds upon sunken whale skeletons, among other things. The research showed that some male worms had taken a reverse evolutionary trajectory, back millions of years to their original state, while the females followed a forwards evolutionary course, as under "normal circumstances."

It might not be a bad idea to set Katrine Worsaae, marine detective, to work on investigating the evolutionary development of Santa Claus. His white beard, red clothing and big belly were not created millions of years ago. He too evolved, thanks to a 1931 Coca Cola advertisement, among other things, into the Santa that we know today: the jolly, stout and rosy-cheeked St. Nick that struggles his way down the chimney with an even bigger bag of toys.