Marine biologists have discovered a strangely shaped squid with unorthodox eating habits deep in the world's oceans. This branch of the calamari family tree is the latest in a string of new species known only from cameo appearances on film.
Since scientists first began prowling the oceans with deep-diving submersibles, they have come across enough new animals to realize that the deep sea is a biological aqua incognita. But even though novel species come along periodically, some are more attention-grabbing than others. One animal, an unfamiliar squid with extraordinarily broad fins and arms that bend at boneless elbows, has been spotted by scientists at least eight times since 1988 at depths of more than 1900 meters. The squid sightings range from the Atlantic and the Pacific to the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Mexico.
These tantalizing tales inspired Michael Vecchione, a marine biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., to analyze movies taken of the squid by fellow biologists. In the 21 December issue of Science, he and several colleagues describe the anatomy of the 7-meter-long animal. Instead of the usual eight suckered arms and two specialized tentacles, the new squid has 10 identical suckered arms. The upper section of each arm is thick and short, compared to the filamentous lower portion with a relative length many times longer than in previously known squid.
At rest, the squid splays out its upper arms laterally, dangling its lower limbs downward like jellyfish tentacles. And its resemblance to a medusa doesn't end there. One squid had trouble disentangling itself from a submersible, suggesting its extremities might be sticky. This, as well as its habit of hovering on tiptoe above the bottom, suggests the squid captures animals passively by using its tentacles as a net rather than actively grabbing other creatures. The animal appears to belong to the family Magnapinnidae, a poorly understood group known only from juvenile specimens.
"That we are finding animals this big that have never been identified before is just another indication of how poorly we understand the largest living space on Earth," the oceans, says Bruce Robison, a deep sea biologist with the Monterey Bay Research Institute in Moss Landing, California. "I'm absolutely certain there are lots more animals like this out there to be discovered."