Uncovering ancient yet well-preserved flora or fauna specimens is certainly a thrill but it also often holds the key to lots of scientific discoveries. This may turn out to be the case with the recent discovery of a 60,000-year-old forest found at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.
The forest is comprised of mostly cypress trees and seems to predate man’s venturing out of Africa dozens of thousands of years ago. What’s unique about this underwater forest is not its age but how big it is.
It’s not uncommon for scientists to discover pieces of wood at the bottom of the ocean – not just from shipwrecks but also individual tree trunks from former forests that have been engulfed by the sea over the years. In the case of this cypress forest, however, we’re talking about a fully-preserved forest with countless trees, many still having bark on them.
We’ve actually known about the forest since 2004 after hurricane Ivan swept through the Gulf of Mexico and tore through some of the sediment at the bottom of the gulf. The forest remained well preserved there for ~60,000 years because it was covered by sediment before the rising sea entombed it.
The site’s been visited by both scientists and filmmakers in the last 15 years as it’s just off the coast of Alabama in Mobile Bay and is only 60 feet underwater. However, it wasn’t until recently that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration made some pretty huge discoveries in the underwater forest and published them in an article on the NOAA site.
According to their report, last December a team of scientists from the University of Utah and Northeastern University visited the site and took several pieces of wood from the forest for study.
The scientists wanted to perform some broad and general research over the pieces of wood but they were also looking for one type of animal that could be on them in particular – shipworms.
Also called “The termites of the sea”, shipworms are quite common in the ocean and can be found almost everywhere that there’s wood laying around. They are a type of clam that eats wood and then converts it into animal tissue i.e. the shipworms’ excrements.
This is important because that leftover animal tissue tends to contain lots of different kinds of bacteria. It’s not uncommon for scientists to find different and previously unknown types of bacteria in different shipwrecks. In the past, such bacteria have been used to produce new types of medicine and antibiotics so the NOAA researchers were understandably excited about what they could find in the 60,000-year-old underwater trees.
Brian Helmuth, a marine and environmental sciences professor at Northeaster University commented on the day of the expedition.
“It was a really nice day. Pretty calm on the surface and we were expecting it to be equally nice on the bottom,” said Helmuth. “But we got to the bottom and it was like diving in chocolate milk. We literally could not see our hands in front of our faces.”
What made the situation even more troublesome was that previous diving teams had reported lots of sharks in the area so the scientists felt very uneasy while in the water. That changed when they reached the forest, however.
“It was really amazing. We dove around the edge of this ancient river bed. On our left were these remains of giant stumps and pristine wood coming out of the bank embankment,” Helmuth recalled. “Even though the visibility wasn’t great, you could pretty easily imagine it being the edge of a cypress forest and it was almost an eerie feeling of stepping back in time.”
The sediment that had covered the forest for the past 60,000 years helped preserve it almost perfectly as it had prevented oxygen from decomposing the wood. That’s why some of the logs the divers brought to the surface looked like they’ve only been submerged for several years.
“It really looked like something that you could have picked up from today. It still had bark on it. It still had all the coloration on the inside. It was just locked away for 60,000 years,” Helmuth said.
Like most good things, however, the wood didn’t just look good on the outside but had a lot to offer on the inside as well. The several pieces of wood the team gathered contained over 300 different animal species living on them, including shipworms.
Francis Choi, a senior lab manager at Northeastern University’s Marine Science Center, remarked that “We were able to take a look at what kind of organisms had taken advantage of this exposed, ancient wood. The different kinds of animals buried in there and what kind of animals are living on top of it as well.”
And, as they hoped, the team also found the shipworm-related bacteria they were looking for. Margo Haygood, a research professor of medicinal chemistry at the University of Utah shared that “We were able to isolate bacteria from them and get some bacteria that we haven’t worked with before, so we’re really excited about that.”
The bacteria produced by the shipworms on these pieces of wood were over 100 different kinds with 12 of them undergoing DNA sequencing at the moment to evaluate if they can be useful for medical use.
“We screened for antimicrobials and for neurological activity, which is in the direction of pain drugs as well as anti-cancer drugs,” Haygood said. “We have not been (working on antivirals) in the past, but right now my department at the University of Utah is spinning up to start including viral assays in the program.”
New medicine discoveries aren’t the only possible use for the samples either. The scientists are also looking into possible applications for new textiles, paper, animal feeds, food, renewable fuels, fine chemicals, and more.
Further exploration of the underwater forest is currently suspended because of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, the scientists continue studying the already acquired samples and are hopeful that they’ll be able to publish the results within a year.
In addition, Francis Choi also shared that they are working to get AUVs, or unmanned underwater robots, to take more pictures and 3D visualizations of the forest and share its beauty with the rest of the world.