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Real-life 'aliens' in the ocean

Creepy one-celled parasites attack a normal shrimplike krill (top), eat its organs and grow until its body is swollen and orange (bottom). Courtesy of Phillip Colla and Jaime Gómez-Gutiérrez. Click here for a high resolution photograph.

Tiny one-celled parasites attack shrimplike creatures called krill in a way that's as creepy as any scary movie, say experts. Masses of them grow inside the krill, eat its organs, and then burst open its body to find new victims. A research team led by Jaime Gómez-Gutiérrez of Centro Interdisciplinario de Ciencias Marinas in La Paz, Mexico discovered the parasites off the coast of Oregon.

The parasites, which can only be seen with a microscope, burst open the krill's body to find new victims. Courtesy of Jaime Gómez-Gutiérrez. Click here for a high resolution photograph.

For six summers, the scientists cruised the Pacific Ocean on a research ship, and they found krill infected with the parasites in many places. In 2001, they used a remote-controlled "robot" to take pictures and collect krill far below the surface, and they discovered piles of dead ones on the seafloor. These krill had also been killed by the parasites.

Discovery of the parasites helps scientists understand how the ocean's food chains work. Until now, they thought most sea animals were either eaten by larger animals -- krill are the favorite snack of some whales -- or simply starved to death. Now they know that parasites play an important role, too. The findings appear in the July 18, 2003 issue of the journal Science, published by AAAS, the science society.


CONTACT: Jaime Gómez-Gutiérrez at 541-737-3968 (phone), 541-737-2064 (fax) or jgomezgu@coas.oregonstate.edu (email)

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Science is published by the AAAS, the science society.