Making waves in the world of oceanic exploration, researchers aboard the E/V Nautilus have filmed a mysterious deep-sea squid alive for the first time.
Asperoteuthis mangoldae was first described just over a decade ago when researchers working in the waters around Hawaii collected specimens of varying sizes during a cephalopod study. In all, eight individuals were collected between a depth of 775 and 975 meters (around 2,500 and 3,200 feet) below the surface of the ocean.
Shining a light at a depth of 930 meters (3,000 feet) earlier this month, high-definition cameras attached to a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) captured the narrow squid near the Jarvis Seamount in the Pacific Remote Island Marine National Monument, a relatively unexplored part of the world. The video shows the squid swiming rapidly forward before reversing its course and swimming backward, darting across the field of view while changing color, inking, and ultimately taking off for a quick escape. But exactly how A. mangoldae is able to maneuver so stealthily in such a weightless environment is what has scientists especially interested.
"We know so little about the deep sea, especially the animals swimming up off the bottom, that we are truly in an exploratory stage for learning about it and them. Many observations like this one are just serendipitous," Michael Vecchione with the National Museum of Natural History and NOAA told IFLScience. Vecchione was one of three authors who first described the squid in 2007.
Not only does A. mangoldae showcase a unique set of tentacles, but throughout its life it also retains a strangely stiff, rod-like structure (an extension of the squid “pen") running the length of its tail that's surrounded on either side by special tissue flaps. In other squids, Vecchione said the primary fins flap or undulate to propel the animal and can be used to steer, but the tail tissue found on A. mangoldae appears to do neither. So how can they swim while pushing or pulling a large, floppy tail around?
"The video answers the question nicely and somewhat surprisingly. When first seen by the ROV, the tissue of the tail is fully deployed,” explained Vecchione. After a bit, the squid decides that it doesn’t want to be around the bright, noisy machine and swims forward with its arms first, collapsing the tail tissue around the rod-like structure before reversing course and swimming backward tail-first.
"While it swims backward, the tissue stays tightly held close to the rod, similar to a sail furled on the boom of a schooner. As the squid swims erratically to escape the ROV, even changing color and inking once, the tail stays furled, greatly reducing its drag. Therefore, jetting forward to furl the tail seems to be the first step in the squid’s complex escape maneuvers," Vecchione added in a statement.
Scientists don’t know the purpose behind the squid fin, but it could help the animal look larger and resemble more dangerous, stinging deep-sea creatures.
For researchers, the next question is how the squid's appearance aids its survival in the almost lightless environment of the deep-sea. An estimated 95 percent of the world’s oceans is yet to be explored – more than the surface of Mars. That number jumps to 99 percent when talking about the deepest parts of the ocean.
In understanding the importance of deep-sea exploration, Vecchione turns to a quote by Louis Pasteur: In the fields of observation, "chance favors only the prepared mind."
"You have to know what you are seeing. However, specific encounters are too unpredictable to plan a follow-on study," he said. "What we really need to do is continue exploring until we have built up a knowledge base adequate to begin proposing meaningful hypotheses."
IFLScience is currently aboard the E/V Nautilus as researchers explore and conduct deep-sea dives in the National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa. Disclosure: Madison is a Science Communication Fellow with the Ocean Exploration Trust.