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15 October 2007

Nature's inexorable imperative

It encompasses that part of the ocean from 1000 to 4000 meters below the surface. All sunlight is filtered out; temperatures average a cool 4°C. To this day, the bathypelagic zone remains largely unexplored. This makes sense, right? It is virtually uninhabited and therefore not of interest. Most ocean science focuses on the interesting life forms frothing around coral reefs in the shallows, or the phosphorescent, fanged creatures found all the way down in the abyssopelagic and at the very bottom, the hadopelagic zone, where tube worms and blind fish use chemicals spewing from thermal vents for energy, instead of sunlight like the rest of us. This makes sense, right? There's just nothing happening in the bathypelagic. Even though it represents about 90% of the planet's biosphere, it's just boring open ocean, right? A wet desert. Wrong. Quite, quite wrong.

The bathypelagic represents an unusual kind of habitat - one devoid of surfaces. At certain places, where the continental shelf disappears, it has no defined ceiling, and no defined floor. Just miles of water above, with the faint promise of heat and light, and miles of water below, dark as Hades. In this kind of environment, natural selection employs alternative criteria. Evolution is stretched to its limits, sometimes quite literally. In September of 1988, off the coast of Brazil in the Western Atlantic, the French manned submersible Nautile observed something unknown to science. It was clear that it was a squid. But what kind of squid? It was not the famous vampire squid, Vampyroteuthis infernalis, which grows to about 30 cm. This thing was much larger. Not as large as the colossal squid, Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni, or the giant squid, Arciteuthis rex, which can both fetch 14 m with outstretched tentacles. No, this was something else. Estimated at 7 m in length, this creature was otherworldly, serene, and graceful. A beautiful alien. Four years passed before the crew of the Nautile could obtain decent footage of a similar squid, this time in the Eastern Atlantic off the coast of Africa. The picture above is a screen shot from their 1992 footage. I can't help but be reminded of the tripods in The War Of The Worlds by HG Wells.

By 2001, research teams have come across these mysterious squid in the bathypelagic zone eight times. Some of the best footage was captured using ROVs (remotely operated vehicles), such as Alvin. The image at left was captured in May of 2001 by the Tiburon, an ROV operated by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, north of O'ahu Hawaii in the Central Pacific. (For a video clip of the squid swimming, go here. It is beautiful and bizarre.) Usually, squid have two long tentacles for catching prey, and eight shorter arms arranged around the mouthparts. However, the arms and tentacles of these macabre squid are indistinguishable. The only other known cephalopods with a similar arrangement of ten appendages are the belemnites, creatures that went extinct at the end of the Cretaceous 65 million years ago. This squid holds its crown of arms perpendicular to its body, with the long filamentous distal portions hanging down from what - for want of a better word - look like elbows. The arms of these animals are by far the longest of any squid in comparison to the length of its body. Although no physical specimens have yet been collected, these mystery squid appear to be the adult forms of the Magnapinna, or bigfin squid, a genus described from immature specimens.

A large predator from the largest environment on Earth, and yet undiscovered for all these years. We dream of other planets, and yet the true wonder is to be found on our own. This is why I study biology. I want to be kept in awe. What other things, exquisite and strange, are lurking in the darkest waters of the ocean?



"Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature's inexorable imperative." -HG Wells

12 comments:

Triggermap said...

Wow this is interesting. Related to ocean science/nature, I was listening to a insert piece recently on NPR about transluscent organisms (cant remember what type, but i imagine kinda small - lol, tight scientific language that) that live along volcanic faults in the middle of the atlantic at rediculously high temperatures. If I find the link, I will post it for you...

wreckless said...

Sweet pics and post! I don't know how you can know so much about plants and other biological stuff, like squid. I am proud of myself for knowing the genus and species of one mushroom, and knowing the word pelagic and its meaning.
I guess I could always talk football.
Have a good day and hope you are all dried out by now.

missy said...

You are my national geographic on the web person! Is there anything you do not know? :-)

When you come to London again, I can do the queuing for you, if you like :)

arcadia said...

hul is absoluut beautiful; 'n goeie magiese tie-in met jou vorige post-

neko said...

dis pragtig.

you're like an online encyclopedia! but, less tedious and more poetic.

Shimmerrings said...

Wow... and wow again, the way the thing swims, so fluid like. Recently I went through the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta. My favorite thing to watch was the electric jelly fish, the colors were amazing. And thanks for making me keep my mac dictionary widget open at all times, lol.

SleekPelt said...

I agree with Neko, TEOH, you have a very poetic style to the way you write science. That's difficult to pull off, but you do it so well. Another very cool post.

jason evans said...

Something about the writing in this post feels like it's without walls. Just reading it, I felt the openess and endlessness of the place. Very well done!

Claire said...

Hi, I found you via wreckless and I love this post! Natural History is one of my favorite subjects to read about. Awesome subject.

gm said...

Dis moer interessant. As kind was die diep-diep-see natuur-dokumentêre altyd vir my die beste. Daar is iets van die onmoontlikheid van bestaan daar. Fantasties.

singleton said...

That video was ballet! Incredible! Beautiful!

Church Lady said...

Who would've thought a swimming squid could look so poetic?

I love this post.