In a video posted on Twitter by the Schmidt Ocean Institute Monday, a thin, silvery something floats in the open ocean in a strange spiral formation. Perhaps, it’s reminiscent of a swirling artistic masterpiece, or a giant, floating piece of silly string—but it’s actually an organism.
As Tessa Koumoundouros reports for Science Alert, researchers recently captured this footage of a giant Apolemia siphonophore off the coast of West Australia. With an estimated 49-foot-wide diameter, the researchers suspect that this gelatinous string might be the largest specimen of its kind ever recorded, the Institute states in an Instagram post.
Check out this beautiful *giant* siphonophore Apolemia recorded on #NingalooCanyons expedition. It seems likely that this specimen is the largest ever recorded, and in strange UFO-like feeding posture. Thanks @Caseywdunn for info @wamuseum @GeoscienceAus @CurtinUni @Scripps_Ocean pic.twitter.com/QirkIWDu6S— Schmidt Ocean (@SchmidtOcean) April 6, 2020
The creature was spotted by the Ningaloo Canyons Expedition, a team of researchers from institutes including the Western Australia Museum, the Schmidt Ocean Institute and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. On the research vessel Falkor, the scientists have been exploring this deep sea region using sonar and a remotely operated vehicle, named SuBastian, reports Ristos Georgiou for Newsweek.
“Everyone was blown away when it came into view,” biologists Nerida Wilson and Lisa Kirkendale from the Western Australian Museum told Science Alert about discovering the giant siphonophore. “There was a lot of excitement. People came pouring into the control room from all over the ship. Siphonophores are commonly seen but this one was both large and unusual-looking.”
According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), siphonophores are invertebrates closely related to jellyfish that live in the deep sea. As marine biologist Stefan Siebert tells Wired’s Matt Simon, siphonophores are actually large colonies of bodies, similar to corals. Individual bodies clone themselves thousands of times into different kinds of specialized units, strung together in 100-foot-long chains.
Researchers have not yet formally determined the creature’s length, but Wilson and Kirkendale tell Science Alert that the outer ring of the siphonophore’s spiral formation was estimated to be about 154 feet long, which would be longer than a blue whale, which typically reaches about 100 feet long. Logan Mock-Bunting, a spokesperson for the Schmidt Ocean Institute, tells Newsweek that the entire creature might measure about 390 feet long.
“Although the ROV pilots made an estimate of its length, it has yet to be formally measured,” say Wilson and Kirkendale. “However, it does appear to be longer than any other animal on the planet.”
Researchers don’t yet know how the individual clones communicate with one another, per Wired. “In a way these specialized bodies function as organs,” Siebert says. “Some move the colony, some feed for the colony, some take care of reproduction.”
Many siphonophores—including one well-known variety, the Portuguese man o’war—hunt by dangling toxic tentacles that ensnare and kill prey. The diet of a siphonophore like the one in the video can include “tiny crustaceans, such as copepods, fish and even other siphonophores, per the MBARI.
On Twitter, users reacted enthusiastically to the video of the long, loopy creature. Rebecca Helm, assistant professor of biology at the University of North Carolina Asheville notes that while siphonophores often hunt in a “curtain” formation, this one is adopting a “galaxy-like” spiral.
“I’ve gone on numerous expeditions and have never, EVER, seen anything like this,” Helm writes on Twitter.