By Dr. Becker
No one knows what might be lurking down in the depths of the deep blue sea. Even researchers with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Office of Ocean Exploration and Research got a surprise earlier this year when they discovered a ghost-like octopod sitting on a flat rock some 4,000 meters (13,123 feet, or more than 2.5 miles) below the surface.
Federal researchers were exploring the undersea area northeast of Necker Island in the Hawaiian archipelago to study geologic features, but the remotely operated Deep Discoverer also catches sight of deep-sea creatures.
On February 27, 2016, the first sighting of the ghostly octopod was made (octopods are invertebrates that include octopuses). According to the daily update made that day from the ship Okeanos Explorer, which carries the Deep Discoverer:1
"During the first dive of the expedition to explore on the northeast side of Necker Island, the Deep Discoverer remotely operated vehicle encountered this octopus, which confused several of our shore based scientists who have never seen anything like it.
Upon further review, this ghostlike octopod is almost certainly an undescribed species and may not belong to any yet-described genus."
What Makes the Ghost-Like Octopod Unique?
Mike Vecchione, Ph.D., a zoologist with the NOAA Fisheries National Systematics Laboratory, participated in the new octopod discovery via live video feed.
He specializes in deep-water cephalopods (octopods, squids and cuttlefishes) and, in an interview published by NOAA Fisheries, explained the unique thing about the octopod isn't that it's a new species.
"We know so little about life in the deep sea that new species there are a dime a dozen. But this discovery highlights just how little we know about the deep sea," Vecchione said.2
In fact, other than stating the octopod is a predator that probably feeds on "benthic animals of some sort," he stresses that anything else is strictly speculation.
There appear to be several factors that make the ghost octopod (it doesn't yet have an actual name, but fans have suggested naming it "Casper," after the friendly cartoon ghost) unique:3
• It doesn't have fins. Cirrate octopods, which have fins, are known to live in the deep sea, but this is the deepest discovery of an incirrate (finless) octopod.
• It lacks pigment cells (chromatophores). The octopod is white and ghost-like in appearance, which is unusual among octopods.
• It has a jelly-like (diaphanous) consistency. The octopod doesn't appear to have much muscle, which is likely due to the limited food supplies in the deep.
• It has eyes that appear to be functioning, even though it's very dark where it lives.
As Vecchione pointed out, " … the deep sea isn't completely dark. Many animals produce bioluminescence, so not everything down there is blind. This animal probably doesn't bioluminesce, but that's just speculation … We also have no idea how long it lives or how fast it grows."
• The suckers on its arms are in one series, rather than the typical two series
Other New Marine Species Recently Discovered
The world, and its oceans, is a fascinating place. It's not every day that new species as cute as the ghostly octopod are discovered, but there are new marine species discovered often that are fascinating in their own right.
In 2015, for instance, a new species of electric torpedo ray was discovered in the southeastern Atlantic. They live at depths of 500 feet, where they paralyze prey with an electric discharge released from an organ on their heads.
The electric shot measures at 45 volts, which is strong enough to knock down an adult human.
Multiple new species of sea slugs (nudibranchs) were discovered from the waters of the Philippines and South Africa, also in 2015. Sea slugs are valued for biomedical research due to chemical properties that may be used in drug development.
The heart urchin, which is described as a "living fossil" possibly related to the Prenaster genus — a fossil species that lived about 50 million years ago — was also discovered last year, showing that the oceans are full of mysterious surprises.
New Species Discoveries May Help Protect the Planet's Biodiversity
The new ghost octopod won't be named until a specimen is collected and researchers view its internal anatomy and sequence its DNA. This certainly brings up ethical considerations of whether new species should be left entirely alone. From a research standpoint, NOAA researchers believe that by correctly identifying new species, it will ultimately help to protect life in the oceans. Vecchione said in the NOAA Fisheries interview:4
"We can't protect our planet if we don't know what lives on it and how life functions. We used to think that the deep sea was so remote that we couldn't affect it. But that's not true. We impact the deep sea in many ways, from pollution to … acidification to expansion of oxygen minimum zones, and we don't even know what's down there that we're affecting.
Of all the space on Earth that contains multicellular life, over 95 percent of that is in the deep sea. And we know almost nothing about it."