The deep sea is our planet's most mysterious environment, where strange creatures lurk like something straight out of Jaws.
Now, a new study published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE sheds some light on one of these creatures — the deep sea bigfin squid (Magnapinna sp.). This cephalopod is one of the rarest sights in the ocean, and this is the first time the squid has been spotted in Australian waters.
Thankfully, scientists managed to snap a picture before the squid disappeared once more into the inky depths.
Here it is, in all its ghostly, long-limbed glory:
Spotting just one of these creatures is remarkable, as this is the first time this elusive squid has ever been recorded in the Great Australian Bight, far from any other sighting in the Southern Hemisphere.
But what's even more fascinating is that the researcher captured multiple squids in a fairly restricted area over a short period of time — deeply unusual for the lonesome deep sea creature.
"Most previous reports have been of single bigfin squid, so recording five in the Great Australian Bight has been not only exciting, but quite revealing," Deborah Osterhage, lead author on the study and a researcher at Australia's national science agency CSIRO, tells Inverse.
Michael Vecchione, a senior scientist at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and curator of cephalopods at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, agrees. Vecchione and his colleagues have described a handful of fleeting encounters with this type of squid over the last three decades. He was not involved in this study.
"I’m not aware of any of them where people encountered multiple individuals of this kind of squid fairly close together. So that raises a bunch of interesting questions of why are there so many of them there?" He tells Inverse.
The answer to that question will need to wait — this is the first such sighting, and more work will need to be done to get a handle on what, exactly, the squid are doing together. But it's possible that they gathered off the Australian coast for feeding or mating purposes.
"We are not sure why they are clustered so, but this is often associated with specific environmental needs and/or increased reproductive opportunities," Osterhage says. "Hopefully future sightings will help us solve this mystery — we can see, for instance, whether they are found in similar habitat."
The researchers observed some fascinating behaviors of the bigfin squid, specifically, the coiling of the cephalopod's thin filament-like tendrils, and the outward spreading of its tentacles (referred to in the paper as the 'elbow pose').
Although researchers have seen this behavior in other studies of the Bigfin Squid, the squids in Australia exhibited some unusual variations on the poses.
"Usually when we see them, they’re floating vertically in the water column and there’s long filaments — the spaghetti-like pieces are dangling downward. But, in some of these observations, they saw the squid flattening its fins and moving along horizontal to the bottom, with the filaments trailing behind horizontally instead of dangling downward," Vecchione says.
"It has given us a real peek into the deep dark world of these squids."
"We knew that the filaments could be retracted, but they got a close enough look at that that they realized when it’s being retracted they get coiled up sort of tightly, and that’s in addition to our knowledge," Vecchione adds.
They also got a closer look at the whitish color of the squid's filaments, and the variable pink, orange and brown hues of their body.
Under the sea — Osterhage and her team captured the close-up photos and audiovisual recordings by deploying a combination of towed camera systems and remotely-operated vehicles up to 3258 meters deep into the ocean. These vehicles are "as large as a van," Osterhage says.
The towed camera system "is operated by crew on the ship, who can move it up and down, and scientists can watch it in real-time up on the ship," Osterhage explains.
This kind of remote technology also allows scientists to not only see but also collect samples and specimens from the deep ocean for examination at the surface.
Vecchione says that this sort of technology is becoming a common tool in marine scientists' toolkit, but it's not a magic bullet.
"I think you need to use as many different tools as you can when you’re studying an area that’s so poorly known, like the deep sea. So each of these tools gives us a different picture of what’s going on down there."
Still, this technology provides a never-before-seen glimpse of these creatures living and behaving together in the Great Australian Bight. Most other bigfin squids have been caught in fishing trawlers, which doesn't provide as complete a picture.
"Soft-bodied deep-sea squid can be badly damaged when collected in nets by trawling which limits what we can learn from their mangled bodies," Osterhage says. "The use of underwater imagery enables scientists to observe these animals live and in their natural environment — the deep, dark, pressurized environment kilometers below the sea."
"It has given us a real peek into the deep dark world of these squids," she adds.
Abstract: One of the most remarkable groups of deep-sea squids is the Magnapinnidae, known for their large fins and strikingly long arm and tentacle filaments. Little is known of their biology and ecology as most specimens are damaged and juvenile, and in-situ sightings are sparse, numbering around a dozen globally. As part of a recent large-scale research programme in the Great Australian Bight, Remotely Operated Vehicles and a towed camera system were deployed in depths of 946–3258 m resulting in five Magnapinna sp. sightings. These represent the first records of Bigfin Squid in Australian waters, and more than double the known records from the southern hemisphere, bolstering a hypothesis of cosmopolitan distribution. As most previous observations have been of single Magnapinna squid these multiple sightings have been quite revealing, being found in close spatial and temporal proximity of each other. Morphological differences indicate each sighting is of an individual rather than multiple sightings of the same squid. In terms of morphology, previous in-situ measurements have been roughly based on nearby objects of known size, but this study used paired lasers visible on the body of a Magnapinna squid, providing a more accurate scaling of size. Squid of a juvenile size were also recorded and are confirmed to possess the long distal filaments which have thus far been mostly missing from specimens due to damage. We have described fine-scale habitat, in-situ colouration, and behavioural components including a horizontal example of the ‘elbow’ pose, and coiling of distal filaments: a behaviour not previously seen in squid. These sightings add to our knowledge of this elusive and intriguing genus, and reinforce the value of imagery as a tool in deep-sea squid research.