Deep in the Pacific Ocean, some 80 miles off the coast of Monterey, California, lies a sprawling underwater mountain habitat that teems with vibrant coral forests, sponge fields and elusive creatures that dwell near the sea floor. While using a remotely operated vehicle to explore the Davidson Seamount, as the area is known, a team of researchers recently caught sight of one such creature: the rarely-seen dumbo octopus.
As Annie Roth reports for National Geographic, scientists on board the E/V Nautilus research vessel had launched a dive into an unexplored reef near the seamount when the ethereal white octopus floated into view. The mission is being live-streamed, and footage of the sighting also captured the researchers ooh-ing and ahh-ing over the animal.
“It’s so cute!” one scientist exclaimed.
As if on cue, the octopus unfurled its majestic tentacles.
“He’s a show-off,” another researcher said.
Dumbo octopuses are so-called for their fins, which resemble the floppy ears of Disney’s cartoon elephant. More formally, the cephalopods are classified as Grimpoteuthis, and there are around 17 known species. Dumbo octopuses are diverse in appearance; they range in length from 8 inches to 6 feet, and some have spines lining their webbed tentacles. But they are characterized by their unique fins, which they use for propulsion, and their inability to produce ink. Like other octopuses, dumbos can change color.
The animals lay their eggs and hunt on the floors of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, between 9,800 to 13,000 feet below sea level; the recently sighted octopus was seen at a depth of around 10,500 feet. Because they dwell at such extreme depths, dumbos are difficult to locate and study.
“It’s not a rare species, but it’s rare to come across one,” Chad King, Nautilus's chief scientist, tells Catie Keck of Earther. “The chances are low because we’re in the deep ocean in one little spot.”
The Davidson Seamount is 7,480 feet tall, and is so deeply submerged that even its summit sits around 4,100 feet below sea level. Many of the benthic species (which live in the lowest level of a body of water) that make their home in the seamount are unknown to scientists, and the Nautilus team hopes to shed light on this remote ecosystem.
King tells Roth that by broadcasting their work on Twitter, the researchers are also trying to drive home the importance of protecting remote, deep-water habitats. In addition to spotting wonderful creatures like the “ghostly” dumbo octopus and more than 1,000 brooding cephalopods, the team also saw trash embedded in the sea floor.