Sea snails hitch rides on submarines

By AAP + AG staff 25 May 2012
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Sea snails are hitching rides on submarines and could be pest invaders of new environments, scientists warn.

SUBMARINE OPERATORS HAVE BEEN have been warned about the dangers of hitchhikers in a new study by marine scientists.

An international research team says hardy deep-sea animals are hitching rides with the subs used by scientists and potentially spreading disease in pristine ecosystems.

Among the culprits is a limpet, a sea snail that lives 2000m beneath the north-eastern Pacific Ocean but can also survive in air when a sub is pulled from the water.

“You can bring it up from two kilometres depth and keep it in four degrees and they would crawl around on buckets and even come up out of the water and still be mobile and active,” Dr Amanda Bates from the University of Tasmania’s Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies said.

If it goes undetected, the Lepetodrilus gordensis limpet can find itself in another habitat when the sub is used again. It gets worse, though, with up to 90 per cent of its population infected by a parasite that wouldn’t be out of place in a horror movie.

“It actually castrates this limpet,” Amanda said. “So, essentially, that animal becomes this parasite because it’s basically being driven around by this parasite. It’s awful.”

Deep sea at risk of invasion by hitchhikers

The researchers, whose findings are published in the journal Conservation Biology, discovered 38 of the limpets after a mission of the manned scientific sub Alvin. They then found them 600km away from their only known habitat and became suspicious.

Amanda is concerned that deep-sea environments could be at risk in the same way coastal environments have been hit by the diseases of invasive species.

“We know from shallow water systems that one mistake can completely change a system,” she said.

Fortunately, the solution could be as simple as remembering to thoroughly clean the subs.

“The scientists themselves have to be better at not getting caught up in their research, just taking a step back and making sure that those jobs are getting done” Amanda said.