What’s lurking below: Creatures of the deep

Warning: the images below are the things that might make an appearance in your next nightmare!

Not really, but there are some pretty crazy incredible creatures living out there in the deep ocean. A recent mission led by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in Australia turned up some pretty wild animals. Check them out below!

Corallimorpharia

I’m starting you out slow here, as you may have already seen this guy in an aquarium. Not too scary, though the picture below of a solitary Corallimorpharia is a bit unsettling.

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Corallimorpharia pulled up on the CSIRO mission. Image: Rob Zugaro/CSIRO/Museums Victoria

Also know as a “False Coral,” Corallimorpharia are related to sea anemones, jellyfish, and coral, but lack the hard exoskeleton of many of their relatives. Instead, this animal is a soft jelly-like disc with tentacles arranged in rows radiating outward from its mouth. These guys actually act a lot like the hard corals you might have seen while snorkeling or scuba diving; they hang out on the sea floor and often times in groups, as seen below.

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A group of Corallimorpharia on the sea floor. Image: Wikispecies

Faceless fish

Now we’ll jump right into to stuff nightmares might be made of…

While we affectionately call this little handsome critter the “faceless fish,” it’s officially known as the faceless cusk eel (Typhlonus nasus).

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What’s interesting about this creature is that while many animals in the deep sea have done away with the need for eyes by developing and perfecting other senses like magneto- and electro-reception, they generally still have small, remnant eyes. This fish, however, doesn’t have any indication of ever even having eyes!

The specimen found on the CSIRO mission was pulled up from 4000 meters below the surface!! No wonder it doesn’t need eyes…the world is pretty dark down at that depth. These fish, though rare, are widely distributed – ranging from the Arabian Sea to Indonesia, to Japan, and even to Hawaii – and are typically found between 4000 and 5000 meters.

Fun fact: The first faceless fish specimen was collected on August 25, 1874 on the HMS Challenger during the world’s first round-the-world oceanographic expedition. It was collected at a depth of nearly 4500 meters in the Coral Sea, just outside what is now Australia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

Spiky Crabs

This dude has some serious spikes that are well suited for life in abyssal waters…

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A spiny red crab caught in the abyss off the coast of Australia. Image: Asher Flatt

He’s part of the king crab family, a group of crab-like crustaceans that are often found in very cold parts of the ocean. You’re probably familiar with the term “king crab” because you’ve eaten those delicious king crab legs. Well, I’m not sure I’d recommend eating these legs as you might get stuck by one of those spikes!

It’s thought that these crabs are distant relatives of hermit crabs because both species have asymmetrical abdomens, which is not the norm for crabs . Hermit crabs display asymmetry because they have to curl up into a shell; however, there’s no apparent reason for these spiky crabs and other king crabs to also have that asymmetry, aside from being distantly related.

Squat Lobsters

This lobster is not what you’d expect to be served up on your next lobster roll. But, squat lobsters are actually served by some restaurants and called langostino.

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A squat lobster, Munidopsis antonii, found on the CSIRO mission; a flattened version of lobster. Image: Asher Flatt

These lobsters are more closely related to hermit crabs and mole crabs than a lobster. And, while they do sort of resemble what we tend to think of as lobsters, squat lobsters are flatter and their tails typically stay curled up underneath their belly.

These critters can be found worldwide from the shallows all the way down to hydrothermal vents in trenches and spend most of the their time on the ocean floor. They’ll sometimes even form dense groups on the seafloor, especially around hydrothermal vents. Depending on the species, they’ll eat anything from plankton, to algae, to decaying plant & animals, and some will even eat other animals.

Sea Spiders

These guys are really just freaking me out… Maybe it’s my aversion to terrestrial spiders, maybe it’s their long, spindly legs…

I’m not sticking around long enough to find out.

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A sea spider discovered in the abyss off the coast of Australia. Image: Robert Zugaro

Most of the sea spiders that researchers found on this mission are found around the world. Though these creatures typically live on the sea floor, they are extremely capable swimmers and can tread water rapidly to lift themselves into the water column and be carried by deep-sea currents.

There is also fossil evidence from about 425 million years ago that suggests that sea spiders are some of the oldest surviving arthropods inhabiting earth. Scientists think that their longevity may have to do with their relatively simple body design and apparent lack of predators.

Carnivorous sponges

What the…?!

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Three carnivorous sponges found in the beam trawl on the RV Investigator voyage to Australia’s eastern abyss. From left to right: CladorhizaAbyssocladia, and something referred to affectionately as ‘sponge on a rope’. Images: Karen Gowlett-Holmes

That’s right, you read that correctly. Carnivorous sponges. These micro-predators, only growing to a length of about 15 cm, eat small crustaceans that get hooked on their velcro-like spines. Yes, these sponges can actually produce pure silicon (glass) spines that catch their prey.

It gets weirder…

Then, because sponge cells are totipotent – each individual cell can act like a stem cell and become whatever type of cell is needed – new cells will migrate to wherever the trapped prey is located and digest it.

Dragonfish

And last, but certainly not least, I present to you, the DRAGONFISH!

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The dragonfish’s bioluminescent response appears different in response to changes in lighting. Images: Jérôme Mallefet

Tell me these guys aren’t just the coolest!?

As you may have noticed, this fish has a little glowing light that dangles below its mouth (thank you, bioluminescence). If you’ve studied deep sea fish before, you might recognize this as the same sort of contraption that an angler fish uses. Because very little light penetrates past 1000 meters, dragonfish use this glowing light to attract prey so it can eat.

How exactly does that work?

Great question! Many inhabitants of the deep sea swim up towards the surface at night to feed; and they use the light of the moon to ensure they’re swimming in the right direction. Enter the dragonfish. This sneaky fish uses its glowing tentacle to trick prey fish into thinking they’re swimming towards the surface when in reality, they’re swimming straight into its mouth! Ouch.

To see more strange creatures they found, check out this video!

 

 


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