This Freaky Spiral Thing Is Alive

The giant siphonophore.
The giant siphonophore.
Screenshot: Schmidt Ocean Institute

More than 2,000 feet beneath the ocean surface, an otherworldly, 50-foot-wide marine organism floats... and feeds.

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The Schmidt Ocean Institute recently shared a video on Twitter of this impressive siphonophore, a compound organism in the Cnidaria phylum (a grouping that includes jellyfish and sea anemone). At 50 feet across, this spiral-shaped specimen could be the largest of its kind. Scientists observed it as part of an ongoing expedition to the Ningaloo Canyons off Australia’s west coast.

Though a single entity, siphonophores like this one are actually huge colonies of individual organisms that work together to perform the various tasks required to stay alive. Rebecca Helm, a professor at the University of North Carolina, Asheville, explained in a Twitter thread that some of these organisms are responsible for hunting prey. In this case, the organism has formed an enormous spiral of stinging tentacles that kill and feed on prey, distributing the nutrients along the spiral. Given its huge length, she speculated that this specimen could be tens or even hundreds of years old.

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The giant murder spiral is just one of many mysterious creatures that the scientists are interested in studying. A team led by Nerida Wilson at the Western Australian Museum are currently onboard the R/V Falkor research vessel as part of a mission to visit the deep, unexplored canyons beside the Ningaloo coral reef. The team is exploring the area with the remotely operated SuBastian vessel and taking DNA samples from the water to uncover what other life might be present.

The team continues to share footage of glass sponge gardens, bioluminescent squids, microscopic mollusks, barnacles that seem to feminize their male hosts, and other alien-looking creatures. Their work is revealing never-before-seen marine species. All the while, they’re creating more detailed maps of the canyons’ seafloor to understand the habitat in which these species live.

The expedition has had to modify its plans amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to a Schmidt Ocean Institute blog post. Additional staff was supposed to join part-way through the voyage, but that will no longer be happening. We wish this team the best of luck on their important mission.

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Science Writer, Founder of Birdmodo

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DISCUSSION

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This whole “this is actually a huge colony of individual organisms working together” thing has always confused me. I mean, I’m a huge colony of cells all working together.