The Earth has considerably more surface area devoted to water than to land, but only in the last few decades have scientists begun exploring the oceans beyond the shallower waters of the ocean shelves. The deep, abyssal ocean accounts for ten times the volume that the shallows do. Surprisingly little of that had been surveyed for life until recently.
The Census of Marine Life (CoML), a project rivaling the sequencing of the human genome in scale, recently concluded its ten-year mission to discover and document marine organisms. According to the highlights report, the census increased the estimate for known ocean-dwelling species from 230,000 to an astounding 250,000 species, and that’s after the corrections that lowered the count. While 6,000 potentially new species were documented by the census, twenty percent of the ocean has no entries in the Census database. Who can say how many more species awaiting discovery dwell beneath the surface?
It’s not just exciting that the census found so many new species—it’s also where. Life was found “even where heat would melt lead, seawater froze to ice, and light and oxygen were lacking.” In the words of Dr. Malcolm in Jurassic Park, “life finds a way” to infest even the most inhospitable environments.
These extreme situations might match conditions found on other worlds, so it’s no surprise that science fiction and fantasy has drawn on the strange life forms of the deep as inspiration for aliens and paranormal creatures. This week, we at Fantasy Magazine bring you five aquatic organisms that could easily be confused for alien or paranormal life (but are actually real).
The Yeti Crab (Kiwa hirsuta)
One of the most visually stunning discoveries of the Census of Marine Life, the “yeti crab,” proves that even the best-made toupee would look bizarre on a crustacean. Picture your basic lobster. Now cover it in blond fur. The crab’s flowing pelt is actually made up of setae, and may help the crabs harvest and feed on the bacteria that thrive in the hydrothermal vents of their homes. Some suggest that the setae collect bacteria not for sustenance, but instead to remove the toxic minerals emitted by the hydrothermal vents.
The yeti crab was discovered in 2005 at a depth of more than 2000 meters about 900 miles south of Easter Island. Researchers believe that the range of the species—actually a member of a previously unknown family of crustacean—to be very small. Not only is the Yeti Crab beautiful, it’s probably pretty rare to boot. Perhaps bald crabs and lobsters drove them into seclusion with their jealousy?
Bigfin Squids (genus Magnapinna)
These are not your standard kraken-style squid—the bigfin squids are barely recognizable as squids with their slowly flapping wing-like fins and long, straight arms held out at right angles from the body. A few feet out from the body, the arms make another right angle turn and drop down towards the ground again. Imagine a squid crossed with a bar stool, and you begin to picture this species’ unusual appearance. Researchers believe they dangle their arms across surface of ocean floor in order to ensnare prey. But little enough is known about the rare group that the odd posture could be a result of them constantly dancing the “Robot.”
The most recently described species of bigfin squid was discovered by a Shell Oil Company submersible in the Gulf of Mexico. This marks one of the few times when off-shore drilling was related to finding new ocean species instead of poisoning them with massive oil spills.
Whale Bone-Eater worm (genus Osedax)
Life can be a strangely specialized thing; such is the case with the fascinating micro-world of whale-fall ecologies. These patient worms, bacteria, and other creatures wait until a whale gives up the ghost and the corpse falls to the ocean floor. In a surprisingly short period of time, the whale’s body is stripped by creatures that specialize in cleaning up whales. There is an entire genus of worms that specialize in eating the bones of whales. The CoML recorded the first known Antarctic species of bone-eating worm by sinking bits of whale bone to the ocean floor for fourteen months. When brought to the surface, the bait resembled something from a John Carpenter film.
Technically, the bone worms don’t actually eat bone. Instead, they rely on a symbiotic microorganism to break down the bone into nutrients for themselves. These worms are so lazy they don’t even have stomachs or mouths. In appearance, they resemble kinky sex toys: long tubes, bright pink in color, and covered in frills and spikes.
Bone-eating worms are the sort of creature that the starship Enterprise might have faced in the early seasons of The Next Generation. Most likely, as one-of-a-kind alien beings that the crew was sworn to negotiate with peacefully, they would have infested the insufferable Wesley Crusher. Early seasons-Picard would have totally been tempted to let them feast.
Benthic Comb Jelly (Abyssobenthic ctenophore)
Comb jellies, more scientifically known as ctenophores, are easily some of nature’s most alien looking organisms. So much so that James Cameron appears to have used them as the basis for the design of his alien craft in The Abyss.
This newly discovered comb jelly appears similar to a semi-transparent kite tied to the muck of the bottom of the ocean with two long strands of tissue (there doesn’t appear to be a scientific term for “string made of jelly”). The benthic comb jelly was found at a record-breaking depth of 7,217 meters, far deeper than scientists had believed such complex life could survive. Its discovery hints that we may not understand the oceans as deeply as we had previously thought.
The Mimic Octopus (Thaumoctopus mimicus)
We at Fantasy Magazine are not convinced that octopuses are not alien life forms stranded on Earth in some kind of octoship crash in the third century BCE. These suspicions were heightened when we learned of the mimic octopus, a species that dwells in the warm waters of Southeast Asia, near Indonesia.
Many cephalopods can change color, and some can even imitate shapes. The mimic is unique in that it copies not only the appearances of other organisms, but also their behaviors. If the mimic octopus wants to cover some distance, he takes on the shape and swimming undulation of a flounder, sticking close to the bottom. It can emulate a poisonous sea snake, weaving two tentacles dangerously, threatening to “strike.” It even dangles its limbs like the poisonous fins of the lionfish. This is mostly to scare off predators, but possibly also because impressions are the highest form of art for their species.
The mimic octopus was “officially” discovered in 1998, but how many times was it misclassified as a starfish, sea snake, or flounder? This relatively late discovery makes us a little nervous. What if a similar species of octopus is walking amongst us now, emulating the behavior of people? Could this explain that unusually damp-looking neighbor at the end of the block? More scientific enquiry is needed immediately. It may already be too late to prevent them from infiltrating our governments at the highest levels…
…or perhaps not.