Presence of radioactive carbon found in crustaceans in oceanic trenches

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Abludomelita obtusata
A benthic amphipod taken with Axiocam mounted on a Zeiss Stemi C-2000 binocular microscope. (Credits - Wikimedia Commons)

The latest study published in the Journal of American Geophysical UnionGeophysical Research Letters provides evidence regarding the presence of radioactive carbon from the nuclear tests in the muscular tissues of the crustaceans that reside in the ocean trenches.

Organisms which reside in the oceanic trenches including Mariana Trench, the deepest point in the ocean incorporated this carbon in the molecules which comprise their bodies from as early as the 1950s. The study finds that the crustaceans inhabiting the deep oceanic trenches have been feeding on the body of these organisms after they fall to the ocean floor. This is a very alarming situation wherein the effects of human activities can be traced back even to deep ocean floors.

Ning Wang, lead author and geochemist in Chinese Academy of Sciences, Guangzhou, China remarked that even though the circulation of oceans takes several hundreds of years to bring the water containing carbon from the nuclear explosions to the ocean trenches, it can travel much faster through the food chain.

Weidong Sun, co-author of the study also pointed out that there is a presence of very strong interaction between the surface of the ocean and bottom. Thus the human activities can influence biosystems even till 11,000 metres. Thus we need to be careful about our activities.

These results have helped scientists in understanding how organisms have adjusted to the nutrient deficient conditions of the deep ocean. Scientists have observed that the crustaceans have adapted to the harsh conditions by having a slow metabolism which enables them to live for a long period of time.

The radioactive carbon, C-14 is created due to the interaction of cosmic rays with nitrogen present in the atmosphere. It is quite less abundant than non-radioactive carbon but can be detected in almost all organisms. Besides this, it is also used for determining the ages of fossils, archaeological samples.

The amount of carbon in the atmosphere has been doubled due to the nuclear weapon tests which were carried out in the 1950s. However, the levels dropped to some extent when these tests were stopped. Hence the levels in 1990 reduced to almost 20 percent of the pre-test levels.

In this study, researchers analysed the amphipods which were collected in 2017 from several locations such as  Mariana, New Britain Trenches in the Pacific Ocean which ranges as far as 11 kilometres below the surface. Amphipods are a group of small crustacean which gets their food by feeding on the dead organisms on the ocean floor.

The C-14 levels in amphipods were much more than that of the organic matter on the ocean floor. This helps in understanding how organisms adapt to the environment and increase their longevity.

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