BOEM Scientists Play Key Role in Discovering New Species

Greg Boland, a biological oceanographer with Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, remembers well a 1997 cruise in the Gulf of Mexico on which a team funded by his agency discovered a new species. Listening to the communications between the ship and a submersible, he recalls the dramatic moment when the pilot of the submersible spotted numerous 2-inch-long pinkish creatures living on exposed methane hydrate approximately 1,800 feet below the surface. 


Greg Boland, BOEM oceanographer, describes an ice worm gathered from one of BOEM’s CHEMO II research cruises in the Gulf of Mexico in 1997.  Photo by Marjorie Weisskohl, BOEM.

The ice worm discovered on that cruise is one of more than 350 species from the BOEM collection that have been officially named and introduced to science for the first time. For more than three decades, BOEM—previously known as the Minerals Management Service—has provided the Smithsonian with invertebrates that scientists on BOEM-funded missions discovered in offshore oil and gas leasing areas. The partnership is mutually beneficial, ensuring the preservation of BOEM specimens and adding to the Smithsonian's invertebrate collection.

The BOEM specimens are housed in an immense plain building in the Maryland suburbs of D.C. containing the Smithsonian’s Invertebrate Zoology Department, or IZ.  IZ currently holds 50 million specimens. The BOEM collection alone, amassed over 38 years, contains more than 280,000 specimen lots collected from all four U.S outer continental shelf regions as part of the bureau’s Environmental Studies Program. 

“I appreciate the opportunity to study deep-sea environments as part of our agency’s responsibility for offshore oil, gas and renewable energy leasing. Few people in the world get to see this underwater environment,” says Boland.  “And who could have imagined when we (BOEM and its predecessors) sent our first specimens to the Smithsonian for cataloging decades ago that someday they would be part of the Global Genome Initiative?” he asks.  

A pinkish orange worm that lives deep in the ocean
This ice worm, discovered in 1997, was living on exposed frozen methane hydrate at a depth of 1,800 ft. The specimen is among those on display at the Natural History Museum, titled “Objects of Wonder,” open to the public until 2019. Photo by Greg Boland, BOEM.

Under that initiative, BOEM is one of 11 organizations partnering with the Smithsonian, universities, research centers, government agencies, industry, and museums from around the globe to capture and  understand the genomic biodiversity of life on Earth and preserve it for the future in biorepositories worldwide.

Today, most invertebrate specimens are preserved in jars, freezers or large tanks. But one day, many will be  represented by their unique DNA bar code. The Smithsonian aims to capture DNA bar code for at least one species out of each of the planet's 10,000 taxonomic families by 2020. The ice worm specimen is among those on display at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum in Washington, D.C., titled “Objects of Wonder,” open to the public until 2019.