WHOI Receives $35 Million Award to Study Twilight Zone

It’s a squid! No, it’s a worm! Scientists bestowed the nickname “squidworm” on this previously unknown annelid species found in the twilight zone using a remotely operated vehicle in 2007. The four-inch-long creature has tentacles on its head and rows of bundled spines on its body that paddle like oars of a Roman galley. Photo by Larry Madin, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

WOODS HOLE – The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution was recently awarded $35 million – the largest gift in the organization’s history.

The award from the Audacious project, which has replaced the annual TED prize, will allow WHOI researchers to explore and understand one of the planet’s hidden frontiers – the ocean’s twilight zone.

The zone extends around the world from about 200 to 1,000 meters below the surface and is filled with undiscovered life.

WHOI was one of five entrepreneurs and non-profits to receive funding as the inaugural class of the Audacious Project. The projects to receive funding were announced April 11 at the TED2018 event in Vancouver.

The twilight zone is home to the most common vertebrate on the planet, a multitude of yet undiscovered species, and the largest animal migration on Earth, as animals from the zone travel to surface waters to feed at night and then return to the relative safety of deeper waters during the day.

Life in the twilight zone is also intertwined with Earth’s climate, helping to control the rate at which the ocean absorbs atmospheric carbon dioxide and transfers it to the deep ocean, where it can remain for hundreds or even thousands of years.

“Despite its importance, there are still many things we don’t know about the twilight zone,” says WHOI biologist Heidi Sosik, one of the project’s lead investigators and a speaker at TED2018. “I think there’s an almost unlimited opportunity for breathtaking new discoveries.”

New approaches will be needed to observe and measure life in the twilight zone, Sosik says, because of its great pressures and nearly complete absence of light.

“WHOI is uniquely qualified to take on this challenge because of our heritage of bringing together diverse teams—scientists, engineers, and technicians— to develop the innovative technology needed to explore this unknown frontier of our Earth, and understand its potential benefits for humankind,” says Mark Abbott, president and director of WHOI.

Using next-generation robotic vehicles and sensors, WHOI will study what and how much lives in the twilight zone; how organisms there interact with each other, their surroundings, and with surface waters; how to design new tools to explore the region; and how the twilight zone helps regulate Earth’s climate.

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