An ancient warship's ram has been slowly disintegrating since it was retrieved from the floor of the Mediterranean Sea.
A new analysis shows sulfuric acid buildup is to blame.
Researchers are racing to find a way to slow the disintegration and perhaps, in the process, learn how to preserve other ancient wood structures after they've been plucked from the ocean and exposed to the air.
Currently the ram — known as a rostrum, a beak-like part of the prow that ancient warships used to ram holes into enemy ships — is being stored underwater, and some of the acidity from its exposure to air (when it was brought to the surface initially) has washed away.
But if it were ever to be displayed out in the air, the sulfuric acid production could turn out to be a real problem, study researcher Patrick Frank of Stanford University told LiveScience.
In 2008, one ship's rostrum — made of bronze, over a core of wood — was discovered 150 feet (46 meters) offshore from Acqualadrone ("The Bay of the Pirates") in northeastern Sicily, under 22 feet (8 m) of water.
The ship had sunk around 260 B.C., during the battle of Mylae, researchers said.