A ghostly, 23-foot-long creature glides through the deep sea, its gossamer fins billowing against the black water. Its arms, more than half its total length, trail behind like delicate threads. The squid doesn’t react right away to the submarine’s approach, but it shoots away into the dark once the sub gets too close. Researchers have captured scenes like this on videotape eight times, in four different oceans, within recent years. That’s quite a lot of exposure for an animal that no one has reported seeing before.
Using this footage, an international research team has presented the first scientific description of the new squid, reported Friday by the journal Science and its publisher, the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Although the scientists don’t know exactly how to classify the squid yet, the animal is so unusual that the researchers think they’re looking at something distinctly different from other known squids.
“This is well beyond a new species,” said Michael Vecchione of the National Marine Fisheries Service and the National Museum of Natural History, the lead author of the report in Science. “New species are a dime a dozen. This is fundamentally different.”
Different, yes, but not surprising to researchers like Vecchione. The squid sightings occurred within a relatively short time, in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans. This suggests that these creatures are actually quite common in deep waters — they’ve just eluded us until now.
The fact is, compared with what we know about many ecosystems on land and in coastal waters, we know precious little about what lives in the open ocean.
The last frontier
It’s fairly well-known that the oceans cover approximately two-thirds of Earth’s surface. But consider how thick the living space is in the sea. While life on land rarely reaches above the tallest tree, life in the oceans can exist at many different depths. The deep water below 3,300 feet (1,000 meters) makes up more than 95 percent of the volume of biosphere.
There is a very practical explanation for why we know so little about the deep sea: It’s extremely expensive to get down there. Many of the deep-sea research missions target hydrothermal vents, shipwrecks or other destinations on the sea floor, according to Vecchione. While scientists are developing a clearer picture of biodiversity on the ocean bottom, their knowledge of what’s swimming around just upstairs is fairly rudimentary.
“This (new squid) is large, and it appears to be fairly common in this ecosystem, yet we know absolutely nothing about it. I think there are many very unusual organisms in the deep sea that we haven’t discovered yet,” he added.
Vecchione also pointed out that many creatures in the open oceans do not behave like their better-known coastal relatives do.
“When we get down there and see what deep-water squids are doing for a living, we’re constantly surprised by their behaviors,” he said.
For example, Vecchione and his colleagues have seen one deep-water squid grab onto another and tow it around, something they’ve never observed coastal species doing. Another kind of squid shoots out ink and hides in the cloud, unlike shallow water squids, which swim away from the cloud.
The squids described in the Science report don’t seem to use their arms for grabbing prey, as shallow water squid do. Instead their arms tend to drift behind them. One squid even got its arms tangled in the submersible, where they seemed to adhere to the vessel’s surface.
Vecchione wondered if the arms might be sticky, so as to capture small crustaceans for food, but cautioned that the idea was pure speculation at this point.
The name game
Researchers will have to capture and examine one of the new squids in order to give it a precise, scientific name. But, Vecchione believes these creatures are quite an unusual addition to the current list of deep-water squid.
The squids are quite large, up to 23 feet (7 meters) long. Their most unusual features, however, are their arms, which are much longer than those of other known species. Like the scaffolding beneath an old-fashioned hoop skirt, the arms radiate out from the squid’s body for a short distance. Then, they bend downwards at sharp angles, so that they drift along in the squid’s wake as it swims.
The Science authors speculated that the new squids may be adult members of the recently identified family, Magnapinnidae. Only juvenile squids in this family have been seen before. Or the squids might make up a new family altogether.
Within a family, organisms can be further grouped into genera, and then further into species. So, finding a new family would signify an extremely unusual discovery.
Into the deep
Assuming the new squid are as common as they seem, why did it take so long to discover them? It’s possible that people just haven’t been looking. Vecchione pointed out that not only do scientists typically head straight for the sea floor in their research vessels, fishermen tend to stay in coastal waters.
Sightings of new life forms in the deep sea may increase somewhat in the future, as open ocean traffic by humans intensifies. Fishermen are now venturing into increasingly deeper waters, and may turn up new specimens in their nets. Oil companies are exploring deeper terrain as well, according to Vecchione.
The deep ocean is vast, however, and not likely to give up its secrets easily. Chances are it will remain a dark, cold mystery for years to come.