The mysterious bigfin squid has been spotted in Australia’s waters for the first time. My colleagues and I from the CSIRO and Museums Victoria detail the encounters in our new research, published today in Public Library of Sciences ONE.
There have only been about a dozen bigfin squid sightings worldwide over the past two decades. Ours happened more than two kilometres below the ocean’s surface in the Great Australian Bight, off the coast of South Australia.
For many people, the phrase “deep-sea squid” may conjure up images of the giant squid, Architeuthis dux, or krakens with huge tentacles swimming in inky black water.
But there are dozens, if not hundreds, of other species of deep-sea squid and octopus (both members of the class Cephalopoda) that are just as mysterious.
For years, one of the only ways to sample the deep sea was to trawl the sea floor with nets. This often damaged the soft bodies of deep-sea organisms beyond recognition. These mangled specimens are then difficult to identify and reveal little to nothing about the creatures.
Fortunately, newer technologies such as remotely-operated vehicles (ROVs) equipped with high-definition cameras are letting scientists see species as they’ve never seen before — offering deeper insight into their shapes, colours and behaviours in the wild.
The enigmatic bigfin squid, Magnapinna, is one case in point. When scientists first described the species in 1998, all they had to go by were some damaged specimens from Hawaii.
The most distinctive feature of these specimens were the large fins (at the very top of the body), which gave the squid its name. Years later, scientists exploring the deep Gulf of Mexico with ROVs realised they had come across Magnapinna in the wild.
They discovered that in addition to its distinctive fins, its arms had incredibly long filaments on the tips, making the bigfin squid unlike any other encountered.
These delicate filaments, which are mostly broken off in collected specimens, give Magnapinna an estimated total length of up to seven meters!
But despite deep-sea ROV surveys becoming more common, Magnapinna has remained elusive.
The handful of sightings have been as far apart as the Central Pacific, North and South Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico and Indian Ocean. This suggests a worldwide distribution.
Yet, the big fin squid had never been seen in Australian waters. That is, until recently, when our team took part in a major research project to better understand the biology and geology of the Great Australian Bight, through the Great Australian Bight Deepwater Marine Program.
On the CSIRO’s research vessel Investigator and charter vessel REM Etive, we surveyed as deep as five kilometres below the water’s surface. Using nets, ROVs and other camera equipment, we recorded hundreds of hours of video footage and uncovered thousands of species.
On one dive, as we watched the video feed from cameras far below us, a wispy shape emerged from the gloom. With large undulating fins, a small torpedo-shaped body and long stringy limbs, it was unmistakably Magnapinna. We yelled and brought the ROV to a halt to get a better look.
The meeting lasted about three minutes. During this time we managed to use parallel laser pointers to measure the squid’s length — about 1.8 meters — before it swam away into darkness.
In total, we recorded five encounters with Magnapinna in the Great Australian Bight. Based on the animals’ measurements, we believe we recorded five different individuals: the most Magnapinna ever filmed in one place.
Most previous records have been of single Magnapinna, but our five squid were all found clustered close to each other. This might mean they like the habitat where they were found, but we’ll need more sightings to be sure.
The footage we captured has offered new information about Magnapinna’s ecology, behaviour and anatomy.
Previously, Magnapinna has been seen many meters off the sea floor in an upright posture, with arms held wide and filaments draping down. We’re not sure what the specific function of this behaviour is. It might be a way to find prey — akin to dangling sticky, sucker-covered fishing lines.
On our voyage, we saw the squid in a horizontal version of this pose, just centimetres off the sea floor, with its arms and filaments streaming behind. Again, we don’t know whether this behaviour is for travelling, avoiding predators or another method of searching for prey.
One near-miss with a camera gave us a very closeup image of Magnapinna which showed filaments that appeared to be coiled like springs. This may be a means for Magnapinna to retract its filaments when needed, perhaps if it wanted to avoid damage, or reel in something it caught.
Until now, only one other cephalopod, the vampire squid (Vampyroteuthis infernalis), has been known to coil its filamentous appendages this way.
We have learned more about the mysterious bigfin squid. But until we have more sightings, or even an intact specimen, questions will remain.
One thing we do know is ROV surveying has great potential to enhance our understanding of deep-sea animals. With so much of the ocean around Australia yet to be explored, who knows what we’ll see coming out of the gloom next time?
What if the “great ocean garbage patches” were just the tip of the iceberg? While more than ten million tonnes of plastic waste enters the sea each year, we actually see just 1% of it – the portion that floats on the ocean surface. What happens to the missing 99% has been unclear for a while.
Plastic debris is gradually broken down into smaller and smaller fragments in the ocean, until it forms particles smaller than 5mm, known as microplastics. Our new research shows that powerful currents sweep these microplastics along the seafloor into large “drifts”, which concentrate them in astounding quantities. We found up to 1.9 million pieces of microplastic in a 5cm-thick layer covering just one square metre – the highest levels of microplastics yet recorded on the ocean floor.
While microplastics have been found on the seafloor worldwide, scientists weren’t sure how they got there and how they spread. We thought that microplastics would separate out according to how big or dense they were, in a similar manner to natural sediment. But plastics are different – some float, but more than half of them sink.
Plastics which once floated can sink as they become coated in algae, or if bound up with other sticky minerals and organic matter. Recent research has shown that rivers transport microplastics to the ocean too, and laboratory experiments revealed that giant underwater avalanches of sediment can transport these tiny particles along deep-sea canyons to greater depths.
We’ve now discovered how a global network of deep-sea currents transports microplastics, creating plastic hotspots within vast sediment drifts. By catching a ride on these currents, microplastics may be accumulating where deep-sea life is abundant.
We surveyed an area of the Mediterranean off the western coast of Italy, known as the Tyrrhenian Sea, and studied the bottom currents that flow near the seafloor. These currents are driven by differences in water salinity and temperature as part of a system of ocean circulation that spans the globe. Seafloor drifts of sediment can be many kilometres across and hundreds of metres high, forming where these currents lose their strength.
We analysed sediment samples from the seafloor taken at depths of several hundred metres. To avoid disturbing the surface layer of sediment, we used samples taken with box-cores, which are like big cookie cutters. In the laboratory, we separated microplastics from the sediment and counted them under microscopes, analysing them using infra-red spectroscopy to find out what kinds of plastic polymer types were there.
Most microplastics found on the seafloor are fibres from clothes and textiles. These are particularly insidious, as they can be eaten and absorbed by organisms. Although microplastics on their own are often non-toxic, studies show the build-up of toxins on their surfaces can harm organisms if ingested.
These deep ocean currents also carry oxygenated water and nutrients, meaning that the seafloor hotspots where microplastics accumulate may also be home to important ecosystems such as deep-sea coral reefs that have evolved to depend on these flows, but are now receiving huge quantities of microplastics instead.
What was once a hidden problem has now been uncovered – natural currents and the flow of plastic waste into the ocean are turning parts of the seafloor into repositories for microplastics. The cheap plastic goods we take for granted eventually end up somewhere. The clothes that may only last weeks in your wardrobe linger for decades to centuries on the seafloor, potentially harming the unique and poorly understood creatures that live there.
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How would the disappearance of anglerfish affect our environment? – Bella, age 6, Sydney.
As I am sure you know, anglerfish live deep in the ocean. The females have an enlarged fin overhanging their eyes and their mouth that acts as a lure – much like bait on a fishing line – and this explains their name. (“Angling” is a method of fishing.)
The fact is we understand very little about the deep sea and how its inhabitants, including anglerfish, will respond to change. In fact, more people have walked on the Moon than have been to the bottom of the ocean.
But I will do my best to answer your question.
Close your eyes and imagine a spider’s web. All parts of it are connected, and if a bug gets tangled in one part, it can cause a completely different part of the web to wobble or break.
It helps to remember that all species are interconnected via something called the “food web”. The food web is not a real web like a spider’s web. It’s just a way of thinking about how species are connected to each other. Basically, the food web tells us who eats whom.
If you make a change to one part of the food web, that can have an ripple effect that can cause changes on another part of the web.
Anglerfish usually eat small fish, as well as relatives of shrimp.
It is likely that if all the anglerfish in the ocean disappeared, their prey would explode in number and another predator would then “step in” to replace them.
And any species that likes to eat the anglerfish would have to start eating another species instead – or risk dying out.
At the height of the whaling industry, about 100 years ago, whales nearly disappeared. That meant that the number of krill (the tiny animals that whales eat) exploded, providing a feast for other animals that also eat krill – such as seals. That is how a food web works.
There are around 200 different types of anglerfish. Although one giant species grows to over a metre, most anglerfish are tiny – less than 10cm long.
Only female anglerfish have lures. These lures often glow in the dark, thanks to the bio-luminescent bacteria inside them, which presents a tempting (but fake) meal to their unsuspecting prey.
Anglerfish don’t form large schools like many other fish and this represents a problem for them – they need to find a mate. The tiny males have found a solution: if they do happen to find a female, they grasp onto her with their mouths and never let go.
These males tap into the females’ blood stream and never have to eat again. Scientists call this behaviour parasitic. Sometimes more than one male can be attached to a single female. Imagine someone’s father being 100 times smaller than their mother and being permanently attached to her.
Nature is truly weird and wonderful.
Among the biggest problems for a lot of fish species are disease and overfishing by humans. But it’s highly unlikely that these threats could wipe out anglerfish.
Anglerfish are found between 300 and several thousand metres of water. At this depth, it is constantly dark and the water is cold.
As they live in such deep water and do not form schools, they are not targeted by fishermen, a common threat for many shallow water fish.
And anglerfish are so widely spread across the world’s oceans that any disease is highly unlikely to spread among them.
There is one threat that might affect angler fish – the threat of global warming. Temperatures in the deep ocean are very stable, they simply don’t change much.
Anglerfish live their entire lives at depth with near constant temperatures; hence even small shifts in temperature may affect them. It remains unclear whether increasing temperatures really will threaten angler fish – only time will tell.
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The New Zealand government’s announcement that it will not issue any new permits for offshore exploration for oil and gas deposits is exciting, and a step in the right direction.
We know that we can’t afford to burn much more oil if we want to meet the Paris Agreement target of keeping global temperature rise this century well below two degrees above pre-industrial levels. Almost all of the already known reserves must stay in the ground, and there is no room to go exploring for more.
Pursuing further reserves would only lead to stranded assets and would waste time and resources in the short term.
New Zealand currently has 31 active permits for oil and gas exploration, and 22 of these are offshore. A program set up by the previous government invites bids each year for new onshore and offshore exploration permits. But this year it is restricted to the onshore Taranaki Basin, on the west coast of the North Island.
Complementing the move to shut down the exploration of new deep-sea fossil fuel reserves, the government’s new transport funding plan aims to reduce demand for fossil fuels by putting emphasis on public transport, cycling and walking.
This gets away from the outdated mantra of more roads and more cars that we have seen over the past decade and will tackle the transport sector, which has seen very rapid growth in emissions since 1990. This will help New Zealand onto a low-carbon pathway and promises a more people-focused future.
New Zealand is a small player in global emissions of greenhouse gases but our actions can carry symbolic weight on the world stage. Given our present position of 80% renewable electricity and an abundance of solar, wind, wave and tidal energy, if any country can become zero-carbon, surely New Zealand can. It can only benefit New Zealand – socially, economically and politically – to lead in this crucial race to stabilise the climate.
As the government announced its ban on new offshore exploration permits, the latest greenhouse gas inventory was also released, showing some good news. New Zealand’s gross emissions went down slightly from 2015 to 2016.
But gross emissions are up nearly 20% since 1990, and net emissions (actual emissions minus the “sinks” from forestry) are up 54% over that time. The main factors that contributed to the increase were dairy intensification and increased transport and energy emissions.
Even though agriculture is still the largest source of emissions overall, energy and transport are close behind. We have seen a near-doubling in carbon dioxide emissions from road transport over the past 27 years.
It is encouraging to see a decrease in emissions from the waste sector. Per head of population, New Zealanders throw away significantly above the OECD average of rubbish, a lot of which is green waste that decomposes and releases methane, another potent but short-lived greenhouse gas.
While New Zealand emits a tiny fraction of the world’s greenhouse gases, on a per-capita basis we are sixth-highest among developed countries. We have as much responsibility as any country to reduce our emissions.
Even though emissions have risen, we are set to meet our national target for 2020 (a 5% reduction on 1990 levels) because of “carry-over” credits from the first Kyoto reporting period from 2008 to 2012. But to live up to more stringent future targets, we need a lot more action than we’ve seen over the last decade. The government plans to introduce zero-carbon legislation that will commit New Zealand to reaching the goal of carbn neutrality by 2050.
This will require serious investment and commitment to renewable technologies, changes in the transport sector, changes to agriculture and land use, and ultimately changes in the way we all live our lives.
Over the past five weeks I led a “voyage of discovery”. That sounds rather pretentious in the 21st century, but it’s still true. My team, aboard the CSIRO managed research vessel, the Investigator, has mapped and sampled an area of the planet that has never been surveyed before.
Bizarrely, our ship was only 100km off Australia’s east coast, in the middle of a busy shipping lane. But our focus was not on the sea surface, or on the migrating whales or skimming albatross. We were surveying The Abyss – the very bottom of the ocean some 4,000m below the waves.
To put that into perspective, the tallest mountain on the Australian mainland is only 2,228m. Scuba divers are lucky to reach depths of 40m, while nuclear submarines dive to about 500m. We were aiming to put our cameras and sleds much, much deeper. Only since 2014, when the RV Investigator was commissioned, has Australia had the capacity to survey the deepest depths.
The months before the trip were frantic, with so much to organise: permits, freight, equipment, flights, medicals, legal agreements, safety procedures, visas, finance approvals, communication ideas, sampling strategies – all the tendrils of modern life (the thought “why am I doing this?” surfaced more than once). But remarkably, on May 15, we had 27 scientists from 14 institutions and seven countries, 11 technical specialists, and 22 crew converging on Launceston, and we were off.
Life at sea takes some adjustment. You work 12-hour shifts every day, from 2 o’clock to 2 o’clock, so it’s like suffering from jetlag. The ship was very stable, but even so the motion causes seasickness for the first few days. You sway down corridors, you have one-handed showers, and you feel as though you will be tipped out of bed. Many people go off coffee. The ship is “dry”, so there’s no well-earned beer at the end of a hard day. You wait days for bad weather to clear and then suddenly you are shovelling tonnes of mud through sieves in the middle of the night as you process samples dredged from the deep.
Surveying the abyss turns out to be far from easy. On our very first deployment off the eastern Tasmanian coast, our net was shredded on a rock at 2,500m, the positional beacon was lost, tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of gear gone. It was no one’s fault; the offending rock was too small to pick up on our multibeam sonar. Only day 1 and a new plan was required. Talented people fixed what they could, and we moved on.
I was truly surprised by the ruggedness of the seafloor. From the existing maps, I was expecting a gentle slope and muddy abyssal plain. Instead, our sonar revealed canyons, ridges, cliffs and massive rock slides – amazing, but a bit of a hindrance to my naive sampling plan.
But soon the marine animals began to emerge from our videos and samples, which made it all worthwhile. Life started to buzz on the ship.
Like many people, scientists spend most of their working lives in front of a computer screen. It is really great to get out and actually experience the real thing, to see animals we have only read about in old books. The tripod fish, the faceless fish, the shortarse feeler fish (yes, really), red spiny crabs, worms and sea stars of all shapes and sizes, as well as animals that emit light to ward off predators.
The level of public interest has been phenomenal. You may already have seen some of the coverage, which ranged from the fascinated to the amused – for some reason our discovery of priapulid worms was a big hit on US late-night television. In many ways all the publicity mirrored our first reactions to animals on the ship. “What is this thing?” “How amazing!”
The important scientific insights will come later. It will take a year or so to process all the data and accurately identify the samples. Describing all the new species will take even longer. All of the material has been carefully preserved and will be stored in museums and CSIRO collections around Australia for centuries.
On a voyage of discovery, video footage is not sufficient, because we don’t know the animals. The modern biologist uses high-resolution microscopes and DNA evidence to describe the new species and understand their place in the ecosystem, and that requires actual samples.
So why bother studying the deep sea? First, it is important to understand that humanity is already having an impact down there. The oceans are changing. There wasn’t a day at sea when we didn’t bring up some rubbish from the seafloor – cans, bottles, plastic, rope, fishing line. There is also old debris from steamships, such as unburned coal and bits of clinker, which looks like melted rock, formed in the boilers. Elsewhere in the oceans there are plans to mine precious metals from the deep sea.
Second, Australia is the custodian of a vast amount of abyss. Our marine exclusive economic zone (EEZ) is larger than the Australian landmass. The Commonwealth recently established a network of marine reserves around Australia. Just like National Parks on land, these have been established to protect biodiversity in the long term. Australia’s Marine Biodiversity Hub, which provided funds for this voyage, as been established by the Commonwealth Government to conduct research in the EEZ.
Our voyage mapped some of the marine reserves for the first time. Unlike parks on land, the reserves are not easy to visit. It was our aim to bring the animals of the Australian Abyss into public view.
We discovered that life in the deep sea is diverse and fascinating. Would I do it again? Sure I would. After a beer.
Fans of the movie Finding Nemo may remember the terrifying fish that scares Dory (a blue tang) and Marlin (a clown fish) at the bottom of a trench.
But in reality this “monster”, a black seadevil, is only about 9 cm long, which would make it about a third of the size of Dory and potentially smaller than Marlin or Nemo.
In 2014, researchers at Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute began studying a single black sea devil. It was caught and moved to a special darkroom laboratory designed to simulate its dark and cold natural habitat.
While this misconception or inaccuracy may seem harmless, it could pose problems for future conservation efforts, as people are more likely to support conservation of cute rather than creepy-looking animals.
While the angler fish is easily turned into a scary monster, the similar-sized tiny Pac-Man looking octopus is cute and popular with the public.
From 2000-2010, scientists described about 1,200 new species in the Census of Marine Life Program. While this figure may seem astounding, a further 5,000 individual dead creatures are in specimen jars, waiting to be described. The scientific process of describing new species is slow.
Specimens must be methodically collected, identified, and then the identity of new deep-water species must be confirmed.
People have always had a fascination for unusual creatures that they may never see. Many exotic land animals can be seen in zoos around the world, but few deep sea species are on display in aquaria. In the meantime, people on social media are hungry for images of strange and exotic animals of the sea.
As a result, a Russian fisherman working on deep sea commercial trawlers last year gained huge numbers of social media followers after posting photos and videos of some of the deep sea creatures caught on his ship, with some even stuffed by craftsmen on board.
Presumably, many of these specimens are bycatch, accidentally caught in nets trawling for other species popular with consumers. Sometimes bycatch, which includes marine mammals, is thrown back into the sea but it may end up on consumer plates.
If images are posted on social media by laypeople in a way that appears sensational and even heartless, and without any accurate information about the animals, then there is no resulting respect for these sea creatures or educational value. Simply viewing these creatures as freaks, ignores the importance of their role in keeping our oceans healthy.
Most people will never spend time on a trawler fishing in deep oceans, but marine conservation and management policy depends on all of us being aware of the risks that human activities pose to marine ecosystems, such as deep water fishing, off shore mining and pollution.
If we call unusual deep sea animals monsters or demons or freaks, then we may harm their conservation as people are unlikely to connect with them or care about saving them.
On the other hand, their rarity clearly makes them popular on social media sites. For other species, this has resulted in increases in illegal trafficking for exotic pets, and aquariums. Deep sea species may potentially become illegally sourced taxidermy curiosities or food. Humans may end up eating these animals of the deep to extinction before their species are even known to science.
We still have so much to learn about deep marine ecosystems and their inhabitants, which have special adaptations for living in these typically cold and dark waters. With new submarines and technology, scientists are able to explore the ocean more easily.
The deepest part of any ocean is the Challenger Deep valley in the Mariana Trench, part of the Pacific Ocean, which is about 11,000 metres deep. By comparison, Mount Everest is about 8,550 metres tall.
The cold water of the North Atlantic, down to depths of about 1,800m, is home to the Greenland Shark, which can live for as long as 400 years!
A new species of beaked whale has also been discovered recently. It is smaller and darker than other beaked whales, perhaps because it forages for deep sea fish and giant squid at depths of up to 3,000m below sea level.
Every habitat on earth is interconnected, and whatever we as humans do on the ground, or in the oceans has an impact on marine ecosystems. Removing deep sea predators and prey, and disturbing deep sea habitats, will change marine ecosystems in ways that we do not yet understand.
Some experts have compared the rapid global spread of unsustainable fishing technologies and practices to a pathological disease outbreak. Oceans are sometimes called the lifeblood of our planet, while rainforests are its lungs.
In reality, about 80% of our oxygen is produced by microorganisms in the oceans. This makes our oceans both the lungs and lifeblood of our planet. In fact, oceans are the blue heart of our planet and we must all try harder to save them.