Meet the predatory tunicate (Megalodicopia hians), a sea squirt that is unique for its predatory feeding style. Whereas other tunicates nourish themselves by filter feeding, the predatory tunicate waits around until some delicious minuscule marine life swims into its hood. That is when the horror begins.
Despite its simple appearance, the hermaphroditic, five-inch-wide predatory tunicate is your distant family member, as both humans and tunicates belong the phylum Chordata. The hood-and-stalk physiology of the tunicate may appear squishy, but tunicate larvae have a tadpole-like body structure and can detect light and gravity. Only later do they ditch their notochords and transform into the yawning maw that strikes repeatedly and without warning. Just like Morrissey!
The predatory tunicate can be found in the Monterey Canyon off of the coast of Northern California. Collecting predatory tunicates from their home depths of 600-3,300 feet can be a difficult task, as they will perish when removed from the surface to which they're anchored. In 1998, The New York Times detailed the Monterey Bay Aquarium's delicate procedure for collecting these animals:
To gather the predatory tunicate, the pilot uses the robot's clamshell arm, breaking the substrate with the animal attached, off the canyon wall. The biologists have found that tunicates that are torn from their substrate or that have their outer layer torn or scraped, have little chance for survival.
The tunicates and other deep-sea animals are stored in an insulated drawer under the robot submersible to protect them from contamination by surface water, which may be up to 10 degrees Centigrade warmer, the biologists said.
Once in aquariums, the tunicates can survive for up to two years (and even fertilize themselves asexually should they so choose). Here are several videos of this spectral animal both in the wild and in captivity.
[Photo credit: Monterey Bay Aquarium]
Some general facts about tunicates.