The Curious Case Of The "Long Stringy Thingy" Spotted In Australia

Schmidt Ocean/Twitter

An incredible video shows a bizarre and enormous string-like creature drifting in the ocean just off Australia. The slender animal is a siphonophore and is actually a huge colony of tiny animals called zooids acting as one entity, blurring the lines between acting as an organ and an animal.

The Binomial Naming System is the agreed method in place for giving a name to a newly discovered species. It involves giving a two-part name that lists the genus and species, which for this siphonophore is Apolemia uvaria. As a science writer, I have to respect this as the official nomenclature, but as an appreciator of long, vague and comical phrases I much prefer this species’ colloquial name, the "long stringy stringy thingy".

And stringy stringy it is indeed. In a recent post on Twitter, Schmidt Ocean, a nonprofit working to advanced oceanographic research, shared mind-blowing footage of what’s thought could be the longest animal on the planet. The video was captured on the Ningaloo Canyons expedition, which aims to explore benthic biodiversity in Cape Range and Cloates Canyons in Australia. They had been investigating the deep-sea environments using an ROV and sonar when they spotted the giant marine noodle on their way back up to the surface.

The discovery has certainly been met with some excitement from other scientists, as previous estimates on the greatest length of these creatures put them at just a few meters. So how has oceanic exploration so far managed to miss such an enormous creature out at sea? “It's as difficult to spend time in deep blue water as it is to study the seafloor,” Dr Nerida G Wilson, a senior research scientist on the expedition, said in an email to IFLScience. “So ultimately, we have not spent enough time in that environment to have a good idea about how common this animal might be, or other individuals of that size. But based on the reactions of other scientists, it appears to be quite special.”

Estimates based on the diameter of the enormous animal's loops theorize it could be as long as 120 meters (393 feet) in length though the exact length has not been confirmed. The ribbon-like siphonophore is made up of millions of zooids all acting together. These zooids clone themselves thousands of times and give rise to a range of specialized replications, and it's likely millions make up this monstrous specimen. Some will act as red lures to attract prey while others can sting or play a role in movement or reproduction. Each individual zooid carries out its role creating one enormous colony that can fulfill all the biological functions required to survive – and evidently thrive, as this is the longest Apolemia ever recorded. Buw how do you go about confirming the length of a potentially 120m-long spiraling string?

“We have high resolution imagery that shows a calibrated set of laser points 10 centimeters apart. By using that we can measure the rest of the siphonophore," Dr Wilson explained. "However, the hard drive that contains that imagery is currently in quarantine after being flown off the ship when we departed yesterday. So we all have to wait for the final numbers!”

Rebecca R Helm, Assistant professor at the University of North Carolina Asheville, Tweeted about the discovery:

The unusual spiraling posture of the siphonophore is thought to be a feeding technique giving the enormous animal a sort of carnivorous UFO appearance. The millions-strong force of organ-individuals will act as a drift net sweeping up food from the pelagial depths. The stingers of this colonial animal give a painful sting so humans are advised to avoid them if they're ever lucky enough to spot one. I think it's safe to assume you’d be in for a bad time with this particular long stringy stringy thingy.

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