This slimy micro SEA MONSTER — which hails from the Celebes Sea in Southeast Asia — is a free-swimming worm with up to ten squid-like limbs. The eyeless animal’s flattened body is approximately 4-inches long and it has 25 or more pairs of translucent white paddles arranged on its sides for swimming, and up to ten fragile, tentacle-like appendages at its head that are the same length as its body or longer.
Researcher Karen Osborn — a marine biologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California — explained that it relies on frilly organs on its head for smell and what seem to be structures at the tips of its appendages specialized for touch or smell. Laurence Madin, a marine zoologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts recalled the thrill of this creature’s discovery:
“When the image came onto the screen, everyone said, Oh my gosh, what’s that?”
While its appearance denotes something from OUT OF THIS WORLD, new anatomical and genetic analysis of the squidworm — otherwise known as Teuthidodrilus samae — has revealed it to be a segmented worm or annelid, just like the common earthworm.
That having been noted, the squidworm differs dramatically from all known worms in that it is a polychaete — a type of bristly annelid that is generally found in marine environments — and seems to be a missing link between benthic polychaetes living on the seafloor and pelagic ones dwelling much further up. This fascinates scientists in part because its odd features suggest the worm may be a transitional form; a species caught in a burst of evolutionary adaptation as it straddles two very different habitats.
Scientists know especially little about free-swimming creatures of the deep because they have proven hard to capture without damaging either the animals or the gear used to gather them. To collect the squidworms — which were first discovered in 2007 — the researchers used a device that gently sucks the animals into a bucket and an adroitly-maneuvered robot that scoops them up into large open canisters.
The Celebes Sea is hotspot of diversity and is located between the Philippines and Indonesia. The deep waters of the ocean may be the largest habitat for life on Earth, but they are also the least explored. Plumbing their depths is challenge because of their remote, vast nature and crushing pressures.
Marine biologist Fredrik Pleijel at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden summed up the vast potential for the discovery of new species in the Earth’s oceans:
“We still have more knowledge more about the moon than about our oceans.”
Bruce Robison, deep-sea ecologist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California, echoed Pleijel’s sentiment:
“There is an enormous variety of remarkable animals with unique adaptations to that deep habitat that we never could have imagined until we found them. Nature seems to be infinitely variable, and try as we might, we can never anticipate all of the twists and turns she’ll take.”