Pompeii worm

(Alvinella pompejana)

Some worms like it hot.

The Pompeii worm (Alvinella pompejana) is an extremophile—an animal that thrives under extreme conditions. It makes its home at the top of hydrothermal vent “chimneys,” where superheated water belches from within the Earth’s crust, delivering a rain of mineral “ash.” Here, large numbers of worms live side by side, each darting in and out of their paper-thin tubes while waving pointy, rust-colored gills. 

Pompeii worms build their tubes directly on the rocky vent chimneys. The base of these dwellings can experience temperatures up to 105 degrees Celsius (221 degrees Fahrenheit) hot, and the inside of the tube isn’t much cooler either. 

What’s the secret to surviving such scalding temperatures? The woolly worm scuttles back and forth between the hot water rich in nutrients and the cool water rich in oxygen—movement that also mixes cool water into the tube. But more importantly, a fleece-like layer of bacteria helps insulate the Pompeii worm from the extreme heat. 

On its own, a Pompeii worm can only tolerate temperatures up to 55 degrees Celsius (131 degrees Fahrenheit), but their bacterial coating redistributes the heat to keep the worm cool. The bacteria not only help regulate the temperature of the worm, they also break down minerals from the vent to aid their host.

Video observations captured by MBARI’s remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) in the Gulf of California illuminate the behavior of these worms in their natural environment. MBARI researchers are also leveraging genetics to learn how one population is connected to another from vent to vent. We have sequenced samples from Pompeii worms all along the East Pacific Rise—a mid-ocean ridge that stretches from Mexico to Easter Island—and the Pacific Antarctic Ridge further south.

Fast Facts

Maximum size: 15 centimeters (6 inches)

Depth: 1,500 meters–3,500 meters (5,000–11,500 feet)

Habitat: hydrothermal vents

Range: East Pacific Rise, from Baja California to the South Pacific, and the Galapagos Rift and Pacific Antarctic Ridge

Diet: bacteria


Research publications

Goffredi, S.K., S. Johnson, V. Tunnicliffe, D. Caress, D. Clague, E. Escobar, L. Lundsten, J.B. Paduan, G. Rouse, D.L. Salcedo, L.A. Soto, R. Spelz-Madero, R. Zierenberg, and R. Vrijenhoek (2017). Hydrothermal vent fields discovered in the southern Gulf of California clarify role of habitat in augmenting regional diversity. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 284: 20170817. doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2017.0817

Jang, S.J., E. Park, W.K. Lee, S.B. Johnson, R.C. Vrijenhoek, and Y.-J. Won (2016). Population subdivision of hydrothermal vent polychaete Alvinella pompejana across equatorial and Easter Microplate boundaries. BMC Evolutionary Biology, 16: 235. dx.doi.org/10.1186/s12862-016-0807-9


Data repository
Data policy
Deep-Sea Guide
What is happening in Monterey Bay today?
Central and Northern California Ocean Observing System
Chemical data
Ocean float data
Slough data
Mooring ISUS measurements
Southern Ocean Data
Mooring data
M1 Mooring Summary Data
M1 Asimet
M1 download Info
M1 EMeter
Molecular and genomics data
ESP Web Portal
Seafloor mapping
Soundscape Listening Room
Upper ocean data
Spatial Temporal Oceanographic Query System (STOQS) Data
Image gallery
Video library
Creature feature
Deep-sea wallpapers
Previous seminars
David Packard Distinguished Lecturers
Research software
Video Annotation and Reference System
System overview
Data Use Policy
Video Tape User Guide
Video File User Guide
Annotation Glossary
Query Interface
Basic User Guide
Advanced User Guide
Query Glossary
VARS publications
VARS datasets used in publications
Oceanographic Decision Support System
MB-System seafloor mapping software
How to download and install MB-System
MB-System Documentation
MB-System Announcements
MB-System Announcements (Archive)
MB-System FAQ
MB-System Discussion Lists
MB-System YouTube Tutorials
Matlab scripts: Linear regressions
Introduction to Model I and Model II linear regressions
A brief history of Model II regression analysis
Index of downloadable files
Summary of modifications
Regression rules of thumb
Results for Model I and Model II regressions
Graphs of the Model I and Model II regressions
Which regression: Model I or Model II?
Matlab scripts: Oceanographic calculations
Matlab scripts: Sound velocity
Visual Basic for Excel: Oceanographic calculations
Educational resources
Navigating STEM careers
MBARI Summer Internship Program
2017 Summer Interns Blog
Education and Research: Testing Hypotheses (EARTH)
EARTH workshops
2016—New Brunswick, NJ
2015—Newport, Oregon
2016 Satellite workshop—Pensacola, FL
2016 Satellite workshop—Beaufort, NC
EARTH resources
EARTH lesson plans
Lesson plans—published
Lesson plans—development
Lesson drafts—2015
Lesson drafts—2016 Pensacola
Adopt-A-Float Program
Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education (C-MORE) Science Kits
Science at home: Curriculum and resources
Sample archive
SciComm Resources