Unknown squids—with elbows—tease science

Scattered reports from around the world have convinced scientists that the ocean depths hold a dramatic kind of squid they’ve never collected nor officially described.

Some 3,330 meters deep in the Pacific, an as-yet-unnamed squid (above) flaps its oversize fins as it disentangles itself from the cables of a remotely operated observation vehicle. In the Gulf of Mexico, a similar squid (below) dangles ultralong arms. Photos: Science

This isn’t the elusive giant squid but a smaller creature with spaghetti arms that stick out from its body at right angles and then turn sharply down for several meters.

“They’re pretty weird squids,” says Michael Vecchione of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

Submersible craft exploring water at 2,000 meters and below have caught sight of these characters eight times in the past 13 years, but no one has collected a specimen. In the Dec. 21 Science, Vecchione and nine of his colleagues describe the similarity of animals sighted in the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans, as well as in the Gulf of Mexico.

The widely separated sightings in places that people seldom explore suggest that such squids are “comparatively common” in the deep seas, contend Vecchione and his colleagues. They conclude, “That such a substantial animal is common in the world’s largest ecosystem, yet has not previously been captured or observed, is an indication of how little is known about life in the deep ocean.”

Vecchione, a squid specialist, first heard about the creature from rumors of an odd animal videotaped by deep-ocean oil surveyors. When he saw the footage, he noticed a suite of oddball characteristics: extraordinarily long arms, “elbows,” unusually big fins, and the apparent similarity of all 10 appendages. Most other squids dangle eight look-alike arms and two differentiated tentacles.

By asking around, Vecchione turned up images from other scientists, most of whom had been searching the ocean for something else. For example, protozoan specialist Joan Bernhard of the University of South Carolina in Columbia in October 2000 dove in the submersible named Alvin to explore methane seeps in the Gulf of Mexico. “Looming out of the darkness, there was this–thing,” she recalls.

She and her companions, a geologist and the pilot, watched the squid hanging gracefully in the water for some 10 minutes, says Bernhard, but didn’t realize they were seeing an undescribed creature.

A less tranquil squid stars in images taken by geologist David A. Clague of Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in Moss Landing, Calif., another coauthor of the new report. Last May, Clague and his colleagues sailed to the central Pacific on a research ship and sent its remotely operated vehicle 3,300 m deep to study seafloor temperatures. Clustering around video monitors showing images from the depths, “we saw what looked like two ropes lying across the bottom,” Clague says.

When the vehicle backed away, the team saw that the ropes were really squid arms, perhaps 4 m long. “Everybody went, ‘Whew, he’s different!'” Clague remembers. An arm tangled in the vehicle’s cables, and the squid flapped mightily to pull it loose. During the struggle, the vehicle’s camera caught clear images of the swimming squid.

A common but undescribed creature from the deep doesn’t surprise Ron

O’Dor, of the Census of Marine Life, a project of the Consortium for Oceanographic Research and Education in Washington, D.C. Deep waters cover most of Earth’s surface, he says, yet people have barely begun to discover what lives there.

Susan Milius is the life sciences writer, covering organismal biology and evolution, and has a special passion for plants, fungi and invertebrates. She studied biology and English literature.

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