Wading in the Big Creek

by Colin Hodgkins

May 24, 2006

There’s a dusty jar deep in Jim Childress’ office, beneath the books, binders, videos, and laboratory equipment stacked to the ceiling and teetering toward his desk. The jar’s floating contents take shape when held to the light—tiny carcasses with disproportionately small heads and wildly long tentacles.

Professor Childress sits at his desk preparing for class, as he has before every lesson the last 36 years. He reviews a PowerPoint presentation examining metabolic functions of deep-sea animals, the last topic before final exams.

"What in the world are these?" I ask, holding the container in the air.

"Oh wow!" he exclaims, catching a glimpse of the creatures.

Childress grabs the jar and brings it to his eye as if he’s just discovered a new species—a frequent accomplishment for this celebrated marine biologist.

See Aliens of the Deep Photo Album

See four species named after Jim Childress.

"I retrieved these near the Philippines, a couple kilometers below the surface." Childress beams. "They’re a type of shrimp. I like them because they usually survive the trip back up. Dead ones aren’t as much fun to work with. I thought I lost these years ago."

That burst of enthusiasm over a "re-discovered" deep-sea specimen says a lot about what drove a boy from Greensburg, Indiana to explore the ocean depths and become one of the leading experts in his field: Jim Childress is a man who always follows his greatest curiosities.

And he’s not surprised his interests have led him to the depths of the sea. After all, he spent many of his formative years getting to the bottom of the curious waters in his own backyard, playing in the creek behind his house. There he waded and collected a wide variety of local aquatic life: tadpoles, frogs, turtles, and anything else he found. The various animals accumulated in aquariums filling his room and spilling over to the rest of his house. Today, his University of California, Santa Barbara office is similarly crammed with animal pictures, posters, and fossils, now complete with living deep-sea creatures kept in pressurized tanks across the hall.

"I was always drawn to the water as a kid, and I loved fishing in the creek with my father," Childress says. "But what I enjoyed most was exploring, so when I got older and my scientific interests developed, I guess I began to view the ocean as a much larger creek."

For 38 years now, the scientist/explorer has spent up to 100 days a year on that big creek.

"The deep sea is a place where you can ask the more difficult physiological questions that are interesting, and the answers provide incredible insight into what’s happening in such a remarkable world," the scientist says. "Historically, the first thought was, It’s dark, it’s cold, and nothing lives down there. But beginning in the late 1800s, people found that animals went to greater depths. Then the perception was, Okay, things live in the deep sea, but the animals must have low metabolic rates and grow really slowly. Now we know these are over-simplifications—the deep sea is a much more complex environment."

In 1979, Childress was a member of an expedition that forever changed the way we understand that complex environment. Following the discovery in 1977 of a thriving community of tubeworms, giant clams, white crabs, and other species in the mineral rich, warm water spewed by the Galapagos Rift hydrothermal vent, Childress and his colleagues began to study the physiological adaptations of these creatures that lived where none had ever expected to find abundant life. Under-standing these adaptations has become much of his life’s work, taking him to hydrothermal vents around the world.

Childress finds tubeworms among the most captivating vent life he has observed. While most vent animals feed directly off bacteria or feed off those animals that do, tubeworms have a symbiotic relationship with bacteria living inside them.

"Tubeworms are among the strangest creatures I’ve ever observed," Childress says of the creatures that have no mouth or digestive tract. "They don’t eat food. They take up all sorts of gases and transport them to bacteria, which in turn produce nutrients that allow the tubeworms to survive—a reversal of many physiological functions used by typical animals."

Natural gas for breakfast

Thanks to insulated plastic boxes that Childress developed over the years, he has been able to collect vent animals, including tubeworms, and bring the extraordinarily fragile creatures to the surface alive. In Childress’ boxes, the animals can be kept at a suitable temperature (about 41 degrees) and are placed under pressure once they are at the surface. For pelagic animals, he designed special nets that minimize damage to the animal. Childress’ ability to capture living organisms has provided a great advantage in our understanding some of the deep sea’s most complicated creatures.

"My main role on any given dive is simply to identify and collect the animals," Childress says. "Most of the work I do takes place onboard ship or on land, experimenting with the animals in a lab. It takes a lot more than simple observation to understand how these unusual life-forms survive."

One peculiar animal has become a constant in Childress’ laboratory and a frequent target of his studies—Bathymodiolus childressi, or the "methane mussel." One of four species named after Childress, its unusual symbiotic relationship with its environment intrigues him. Methane mussels contain intracellular methane-oxidizing bacteria in their gills that convert methane to a nutritional form. They thrive on natural gas!

"The weirdest thing I’ve ever seen"

Methane mussels are found off the coast of Mexico and surrounding the most unusual deep-sea phenomena Childress has ever observed—a hyper-saline "lake" in the Gulf of Mexico known as the Brine Pool.

During the Middle Jurassic period the Gulf of Mexico became a shallow sea, cut-off from the world ocean. Over time, it dried out and produced a thick layer of salts and seawater minerals. When the gulf rifted apart and again filled with water, this layer formed several enormously dense salt-layers, or pools, in which no life can survive.

"I knew the Brine Pool existed, but I had no idea it would be so spectacular," Childress says. "It literally looks like a pond floating in the middle of the ocean because the water is so dense, several times the concentration of salt water. It was the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen. I watched fish swim into it and die."

Less spectacular but more pervasive are the man-made threats to the environment that Childress has witnessed.

"There isn’t an area of the ocean floor I’ve seen that isn’t littered with trash," Childress says. "I collect pictures of beer cans, bottles, and other things I find there. You can’t go anywhere down there without seeing garbage—bags, furniture, you name it."

Encountering constant environmental threats first-hand over the years has left Childress skeptical of promises to "clean up" the planet.

"Back in the 1960s I used to get really upset about environmental issues," says Childress, who has served on the executive board of Santa Barbara’s Sierra Club. "But then I learned to just live my life. I’m a pessimist, so I can’t say that I foresee things getting any better. Just look how messed up things are right now. We claim to be concerned about the environment, yet we refuse to sign the Kyoto Protocol."

Seasick scientist

Childress spends his free time hiking or driving his Corvette in amateur road races. And nowhere near the ocean.

"I have colleagues who own sailboats and feel home at sea, but that’s not for me," the former Hoosier admits. "I enjoy the intellectual exercise of working there and love the biology, but that’s about it. I prefer hiking in the mountains when I can, or spending time with my wife."

Ever since the late 1960s, Childress has spent anywhere between 30 and 100 days a year at sea. He has lived for a total of a year-and-a-half on just one vessel, New Horizon, and exhausted countless days on others. For his first 10 years, he was often seasick during expeditions. There’s nothing romantic about going to sea for the scientist—it just comes with the territory.

The 63-year-old explorer says other aspects of his 38 years on the ocean have worn on him. Take the logistics of a deep-sea dive. The interiors of submersibles are often uncomfortable, with three people (usually one pilot and two scientists) crammed in an incredibly small space. Aboard Alvin, one submersible in which Childress and his team studied life surrounding hydrothermal vents, three people work in a space about seven feet in diameter. It takes a lot of twists and turns just to look out the window.

Childress has made dives that lasted up to 16 hours. With limited battery power, submersibles don’t have heaters. The temperature descends as the submersible does. Childress usually loads up on heavy clothing, hats, and gloves to combat the near freezing temperatures.

"It’s like sitting in a refrigerator." Childress laughs. "And it’s not like you can get up and take a walk around the block; you have to dress warmly and stick it out."

Vampire of the deep

In May 2005, Childress was honored with the prestigious Cody Award from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Awarded once every two years, the Cody recognizes scientific achievement in oceanography, marine biology, or earth science.

"I’m just proud to be associated with the names of past Cody award winners," Childress says. "I have a tremendous level of admiration for that group of scientists."

Another unexpected honor came from his former graduate student, Dr. Erik Thuesen. During a series of cruises off the coast of California, Thuesen and Childress discovered at great depths several colorful species of jellyfish that had never been identified. When it came time to name the creatures, Thuesen called the black jellyfish Vampyrocrossota childressi after Childress, to match his mentor’s dark sense of humor.

"Erik and I share a love of Pedro Almod€var films and other fairly twisted things," Childress says. "So I thought it was funny he chose to name the black jellyfish after me, but I was flattered as well."

Jim Childress believes that his work at sea is complete, his days of discomfort there behind him. He hopes to concentrate on writing, focusing on a few papers and incomplete manuscripts. He is currently writing about the behavior and physiology of vent animals in the South Pacific’s Lau Basin.

Although he doesn’t intend to return to sea, the explorer/scientist won’t rule out the possibility if the right opportunity presents itself. Last year, Childress assisted Titanic director James Cameron with an underwater IMAX 3D movie called Aliens of the Deep. The film drew the connections between life in the deep sea and undiscovered life in outer space. Childress and a team of marine biologists helped out, and he earned his first Hollywood acting credit.

"When I learned Cameron was planning to dive in the Gulf of California, I decided I had to try to take advantage of the opportunity," Childress says. "I’ve worked all over the world, but I had never dove there, so that’s why I did it. In truth, it had nothing to do with my desire to work on a film."

But everything to do with his innate sense of curiosity. It’s what drives him in his daily life, at sea, and even at home.

"My wife is always giving me a hard time when I see ants and cockroaches in the house and find them amazing." Childress laughs. "All living things are amazing. I love to go hiking in the mountains; when you think about what it takes just for my body to balance as I walk from one rock to another, it’s remarkable. You do it without even thinking about it, and that’s what I find so fascinating. I’m just always trying to figure out why things are the way they are.

"I’m not sure how my work will be viewed 100 years from now, if at all. But I hope that future scientists will follow their own curiosities the way I have. If they do, then some day I think we have a chance to put the pieces together."

 

First Photo: The deep-sea submersible Alvin.

Second Photo: Among the strangest creatures Childress has observed, tubeworms have no mouth or digestive tract! These are in the Gulf of California, about a mile below the surface.

Third Photo: Childress boards Alvin for another dive during a 1987 expedition off the Galapagos Islands.

 

 


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