Home            Methane Ice Worms
Methane Ice Worms

There are colossal amounts of Methane Hydrates under the sea, mainly covered by mud and other deposits.  These are held in a stable condition by the combination of low temperatures and high pressures.  Bacteria and similar microscopic life eat this mineral.  They get their energy by metabolizing the methane.  As well as Methane Hydrates, these deposits normally contain some hydrogen sulphide hydrates.  Many of these bacteria need oxygen for their metabolism.

It used to be thought that only bacteria and archaea would live in this habitat.  In 1997 a polychaete worm was discovered in the Gulf of Mexico, about 150 miles south of Florida. This worm has been named Hesiocaeca methanicola.

Large numbers of these worms were living on the surface of an exposed deposit of Methane Hydrate.


It is thought probable that these worms were living off bacteria.  This would include the specialized bacteria that were eating the hydrates. 


The worms would be playing a part in the oxidation of the hydrates, particularly by bringing more oxygenated water to the surface with the motion of their appendages.  The Oxygen would be used both by the worms and by the little organisms they feed on.

Modern Worm

The bacteria that metabolize the hydrates may be similar to bacteria that existed billions of years ago, but the worms are a much more modern creature that has adapted to this unusual environment.


There were a number of larger creatures that might be expected to eat the worms, but so far it is uncertain if they actually do this.


An important question is whether these worms also live on the huge buried methane hydrate deposits.  It has been established that they will live on hydrate deposits that are buried by 10 centimetres of mud, but it is not yet known how deep they can go.


These worms seem to produce large numbers of larvae that will die in a few weeks if they do not find a suitable habitat.  It is not known how common this worm is.  We also do not known what other creatures inhabit and use this undersea energy source.

Other Planets

The existence of a higher order organism in this habitat suggests the possibility of life in similar extraterrestrial habitats such as the huge ocean of Europa.













Methane Ice Worm
Image Credit: NOAA
Iceworms on methane hydrate  540 m deep in the Gulf of Mexico. 
Photo by Ian MacDonald, NOAA