A Rare Sighting of the ‘Headless Chicken Monster’ of the Sea

The strange sea cucumber, spotted in the Southern Ocean, has only been captured on video once before

The "headless chicken monster," a.k.a. Enypniastes eximia. NOAA

While conducting a video survey of the deep, dark waters of the Southern Ocean, Australian researchers recently captured footage of a host of funky creatures that swim about near the sea floor. But the team was particularly surprised when a pink, blob-like animal fluttered into shot, propelled by a little pair of fins. It looked “a bit like a chicken just before you put it in oven,” Dirk Welsford, the program leader for the Australian Antarctic Division, tells Livia Albeck-Ripka of the New York Times. The researchers had no idea what it was.

Further inquiry revealed the identity of the strange animal: Enypniastes eximia, an elusive sea cucumber known less formally as the “headless chicken monster” because of its resemblance to something you might see roasting on a spit. The creature has been known to scientists since the late 19th century, but it is rarely seen. Enypniastes eximia has only been captured on video once before, when it was filmed last year in the Gulf of Mexico—far from the waters off the coast of East Antarctica, where the latest sighting occurred.

When they stumbled upon the chicken monster, Welsford and his team were in the midst of a project to gather information about areas of the Southern Ocean that might be able to withstand deep-sea fishing—and those that cannot. East Antarctic waters, which are rife with corals and serve as a foraging ground for penguins, are home to many aquatic species sought after by commercial fisheries. As Bard Wilkinson of CNN reports, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), whose members represent 24 countries and the European Union, has floated the possibility of creating three large protected areas along East Antarctica. The proposal, however, has been repeatedly blocked by Russia and China.

During their data gathering mission, the Australian Antarctic Division researchers were able to peek into the remote depths of the Southern Ocean with the help of an underwater camera attached to a fishing line. The housing that protects the camera is “extremely durable,” Welsford says, adding that the team “needed something that could be thrown from the side of a boat, and would continue operating reliably under extreme pressure in the pitch black for long periods of time.”

The oddball sea cucumber captured in the footage filters through sediment on the ocean floor, feasting on organic material that it scoops up with a cluster of tentacles. Unusually for sea cucumbers, it has fins that allow it to scoot away from predators. But there is much about Enypniastes eximia that scientists just don’t know, including where it is distributed and how many individuals exist in the world’s oceans.

The recent sighting could shed new light on the mysterious sea cucumber, and may help bolster the case for establishing more protected areas off the coast of Antarctica. The researchers will present their data at the 10-day CCAMLR meeting, which kicked off last week in Hobart, Australia. As the “headless chicken monster” shows, there is much that we don’t know about the rare, wacky creatures that flit about in Antarctic waters—creatures that may suffer if commercial fishing isn’t restricted.

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