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Five more marine organisms that put their superhero counterparts to shame

Evolution is the most creative force on the planet. Everywhere we look, we find species with novel and phenomenal adaptations that put their comic book brethren to shame. In no ecosystem is this more apparent than in the vast and unfathomable ocean. Marine species, especially those in the deep sea, have evolved to survive in a environment that is completely alien to us. Several months ago, I unveiled “Five organisms with real super powers that rival their comic book counterparts“, but that was just the beginning. Without further adieu, I give you 5 more marine organisms that put their superhero counterparts to shame (and one bonus critter).

The blind shrimp with super senses

Rimicaris exoculata – http://eol.org/data_objects/13231836

In the deep sea, eyes are not among the most useful sense organs. While many deep-sea species have extremely reduced eyes, some have abandoned these organs entirely. Rimicaris exoculata is a shrimp endemic to deep-sea hydrothermal vents in the mid-Atlantic that is completely eyeless. Its carapace is smooth, without even a hint of reduced, vestigial eyes. This, unfortunately, is a problem because Rimicaris exoculata is a farmer. The blind shrimp grows bacteria in its gill chamber, bacteria that can convert the chemical-rich hydrothermal vent fluid into food for the shrimp.

For lack of a more descriptive adjective, hydrothermal vents are hot. Some can exceed 400°C. Rimicaris exoculata needs to get close to this hot vent fluid to feed its crop of bacteria, but not so close as to become a hydrothermal hors d’oeuvre. And so, the blind shrimp evolved a completely new light-sensitive organ mounted on the top of its carapace–the rhodopsin-rich dorsal eyespot.

The dorsal eyespot of Rimicaris exoculata doesn’t “see” in the normal sense, there is still almost no light in the deep sea. Rather, this shrimp is adapted to detect the black body radiation emitted by the hydrothermal vent. For Rimicaris exoculata, the deep sea glows with the light of super-heated hydrothermal fluid, allowing it to both find food for its bacterial crop and avoid getting cooked itself.

It should be no surprise that Rimicaris exoculata is undoubtedly the favorite deep sea organism of another blind champion with super senses–Daredevil.

The iguana that shrinks at will

The marine iguana (Amblyrhynchus cristatus) Galápagos Islands – photo by David Adam Kess

Marine iguanas are fantastic creatures. Natives of the Galapagos island, these reptiles have eschewed the readily available terrestrial food sources to take the plunge and dive for their meals. Marine iguanas enjoy algae that clings to rocks up to 30 meters below the surface. They are the only modern lizards that forage in the ocean. Reptiles are ectotherms–they need an external heat supply stay warm. After a long dive, a marine iguana may be so chilled that it is barely able to move and must bask for hours in the sun to recover its body heat. This makes marine iguanas easy to approach, but also very aggressive while basking.

Food in the Galapagos is not always dependable, and during the El Niño southern oscillation, food availability is diminished. While other species may draw upon fat stores, or enter a low-metabolism state during food-poor conditions, marine iguanas can unleash a unique ability: they shrink.

Most vertebrates will lose mass during famine conditions, but only marine iguanas can legitimately shrink. When food is low for prolonged periods, marine iguanas secrete a stress hormone that decreases skeletal size, physically reducing their body size by up to 20%. When food becomes more abundant, they return to their original size.

The ability to shrink at will is an unappreciated but often useful power. None know that better than Justice League regular The Atom.

The flesh eating uber-villain that will make you rot

As far as we’re concerned, this is truly the deadliest creature in the ocean. The majority of human fatalities resulting from encounters with marine life can be attributed to it. It is silent, invisible. Shark attacks are trivial in comparison. It is Vibrio vulnificus, a marine bacteria that finds its way into the human body through open wounds or the ingestion of shellfish. If you’re in the risk group–healthy males over 40, death is almost guaranteed.

Death from ingested Vibrio vulnificus is not pretty. Prolonged diarrhea and abdominal pain is followed by fever, septicemia,  and necrotizing fasciitis in the extremities. Your tissue literally rots away. And then, of course, you die. Infection through open wounds is no less pretty, though you may be spared death by a quick amputation. Even then, the mortality rate from infected wounds is 1 in 5. Not pretty.

This flesh rotting monster is inhibited by the presence of estrogen, which is why almost all patients tend to be male. The connection is obvious. This powerful force for decay can stand shoulder to shoulder with the arch-nemesis of the Swamp Thing: The Rot.

The dazzler of the deep

Not all super power are sublime manifestations of ultimate dominance; some powers are simply useful. Such is the case with Acanthephyra purpurea, a deep-sea shrimp with the rather handy ability to spew a cloud of bioluminescence when threatened, dazzling it’s enemies and providing ample opportunities for a hasty exit. It’s Dazzler!

The sea hag that bends water to her will

Hagfish.

The ocean is a dangerous place, filled with brutal predators. A small, jawless fish with no vertebrae might find themselves backed into a corner, too weak to survive. Buthagfish, members of an ancient lineage and the only organisms that possess a skull but no spinal column, are surprisingly durable.

Found in abundance in nearly all deep oceans, hagfish make their living as scavengers. When large dead animals, like whales, sink to the sea floor, the hagfish descend. Their highly flexible, eel-shaped body allows them tie themselves into knots, using the leverage to latch onto sunken carcasses and rip away flesh.

Gross, but not a super power. More impressive, however, is the hagfish defense mechanism. When threatened, hagfish release tremendous amounts of mucous, so much so that the water around them becomes dense and viscous. Surrounded by hagfish slime, predators, even large sharks, are incapable of moving. A poorly timed bite could force hagfish mucous into the gills, suffocating its enemies in a wall of water, now under it control.

Through its slime, the hagfish exhibits an exceptional control over the properties of water. This level of control could only be matched by the rebel and occasional queen of Atlantis: Mera.

Mera. From Aquaman Volume 1, the Trench.

Bonus: the over-hyped, under-powered superhero wannabe

Maybe you can get a hug from Booster Gold. An adult tardigrade less than 1 millimeter in length. (ESA/Ralph O. Schill)

Ever since I wrote the first “5 superhero organisms” post, I knew that I would eventually have to face the fawning masses demanding that their over-hyped darling be including among the true titans of super-species. I am speaking, of course, of the lowly tardigrade. To be clear, tardigrades are perfectly fine organisms. I’ll even allow that they’re on the right side of the nifty species bell curve. But tardigrades simply do not stack up against that other species on these lists. While tardigrades can survive extreme, heat, pressure, even the vacuum of space, they can only do so while in cryptobiosis–a desiccated state of almost zero metabolism. You could say that, absent any real powers, they’ve invested their vast, evolutionary wealth into a series of gadgets, suits, caves, and vehicles that allow them to wait, insulating themselves from hostile environments. They don’t thrive under stress, they merely endure.

In addition, most tardigrade species lack the ability to expel waste, accumulating feces within their carapace until they shed it by molting.

But tardigrades are cute, earning themselves nicknames like “water bear” or “moss piglet”, so they get plenty of press.

Over-hyped, under-powered, and largely full of crap, the tardigrade shares many features with Gotham’s own bat-cowled millionaire with an over-inflated ego: Bruce Wayne.


Deep-sea biologist, population/conservation geneticist, backyard farm advocate. The deep sea is Earth's last great wilderness.


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