Dr. Nerida Wilson could not believe her eyes. As maintained by The New York Times, drifting past beneath the RV Falkor as it heads back to the surface is a marvelous creature that takes the shape of a giant swirl approximately 150 feet long. “It looked like an incredible UFO!” she exclaimed.
This was the first time creatures such as the bioluminescent Taning’s octopus squid have been seen off the coast of Western Australia, according to Australian Geographic, and the fact that this deep-sea predator was found only 630 metres beneath the sea near Western Australia also contributes to the scientists’ astonishment.
A senior research scientist from the Western Australia Museum and leader of this underwater expedition that was to discover 30 new marine species, Dr. Wilson stated that the discovery of the extra-long creature came when they were least expecting it. As maintained by The Guardian, Dr. Wilson explained that although their research vessel dived as deep as 4,439 metres during their expedition, the creature “was only discovered as the vehicle was making its way back to the surface at around 630 metres”.
The creature turns out to be a siphonophore, a long, spiraling marine organism made up of many small clones. Despite the fact that most species of siphonophores are quite long, scientists believe that this particular siphonophore may be the longest yet discovered. According to unbelievable facts, while scientists are still figuring out the siphonophore’s actual length, they suspect that the spiraling, stringy organism caught on video to be over 120 meters or 390 feet in total length. If that is true, it would mean that the creature is three times longer than a humpback whale and twice as long as an average blue whale.
Siphonophores are a type of predatory marine creature that lives in deep waters and are related to jellyfish, hydroids, corals, and anemones. In appearance, however, siphonophores resembled most with jellyfish. Every species of siphonophores are predatory carnivores that stalk crustaceans, fish, copepods, and other small prey by laying a ‘curtain’ of tentacles as a trap, as specified by Australian Geographic. It so happens that the tentacles of siphonophores are equipped with toxin-laced harpoons capable of paralyzing unsuspecting prey.
In order to fully understand what siphonophores really are, it should be made clear that they are not one animal. To be more precise, each siphonophore is made up of a colony of very small organisms called “zooids”, which are “clusters of cells that clone themselves thousands of times to produce an extended, string-like body,” as stated by The New York Times. The zooids were connected to form the shape of the siphonophore by tissues or encased in an exoskeleton.
Although some of Dr. Wilson’s colleagues remarked that the siphonophore resembled some silly string, she explained that the organism is much more organized than that. “They’re really strange animals,” Wilson commented, “A little group of clones somehow communicate with each other and decide, well, we’re going to take over the role of feeding and another group of clones will take over the role of reproduction.”
As specified by unbelievable facts, the zooids are genetically identical and all share the same DNA, but they differ from each other as they play different roles that each contribute to the survival of the colony. For instance, certain zooids within the colony have mouths that enable them to eat for the entire organism, while others with legs are there to swim and some do the jobs of stinging and keeping the heart functioning.
“To fulfill their specific purpose, the zooids arranged themselves in neat, repeating orders within their colony. It is a lot like arranging different shapes and colors of beads in a single string. Though members of the same species have the same pattern of zooids, their order may vary,” according to unbelievable facts.
“Like most interesting discoveries,” Wilson said, “this one was a complete accident.” As specified by CBC Radio News, most scientists have drifted out of the control room, but word soon spread and people came pouring into the control room to share the excitement. “It was just amazing to see this huge organism spread out like a spiral UFO, hovering in the water column,” she added.
The discovery of the giant siphonophore was made by a group of scientists on an expedition led by the Schmidt Ocean Institute, a non-profit organization whose goal in this particular expedition was to create a baseline understanding of the species at the Ningaloo Canyons to assist the park rangers there. As maintained by Australian Geographic, “the scientists have been using an underwater robot called SuBastian to explore the deep-sea Ningaloo Canyons, which is one of the longest near-shore reefs in the world and Australia’s largest fringing reef system, stretching 300 kilometres along the north-west coast”.
“I’ve gone on numerous expeditions and have never, EVER, seen anything like this,” exclaimed jellyfish researcher Rebecca Helm, “Let me tell you what this is and why it is blowing my mind. Most of the siphonophore colonies I’ve seen are maybe 20 cm long, maybe a metre. But THIS animal is massive. AND not just massive, the colony is exhibiting a stunning behavior: it’s hunting.”
According to Australian Geographic, Helm suggests that this particular siphonophore may be tens, or possibly thousands of years old, as animals in cold, deep waters like the Ningaloo Canyons usually grow very slowly. However, it remains unclear how siphonophores are capable of reaching such enormous scales. “Size constraints could come down to the animal’s ability to ‘hold itself together’ at larger sizes,” Wilson stated.
Scientists took samples and images as well as noted the temperature and pH levels of the water during their underwater exploration. “What’s fascinating about this particular part of the world is that it has not been explored,” stated the executive director of the Schmidt Ocean Institute, Jyotika Virmani. “Any time people go down into the deep sea, it’s so vast and yet so unexplored that it’s very easy to make new discoveries and to see something we’ve never seen before. It is like being on a new planet,” she added.
As stated by The Guardian, this expedition also discovered 30 other deep-sea marine species that scientists suspect has not yet been documented, which include an octopus squid, a long-tailed sea cucumber, glass sponges, and the first giant hydroids ever seen in Australia.
While it may take months or even years for scientists to be sure that the organisms they discovered on their expedition are new to science, Wilson says that they will definitely continue to look for and expect new species. “Those waters were just too unexplored to not yield such treasures,” she concluded.