Picture a pill bug, roly poly, woodlouse, or doodle bug, an animal found under rocks and logs throughout the United States. Now picture an animal similar to that pill bug, but as big as a cat, crawling across the Gulf of Mexico. That is the giant deep-sea isopod.
The deep waters of the United States’ Exclusive Economic Zone is home to this large, recognizable animal, which can reach almost 2 feet in length. Since their discovery in the late 19th century, giant isopods have captured the public’s imagination, acting as an Ambassador Species for deep-sea ecosystems. Ambassador Species are important for education, exploration, and conservation as they provide a charismatic icon to help introduce people to new and unfamiliar places.
WHEREAS: Read More
Giant Isopod. Photo by author.
I love giant deep-sea isopods (Bathynomous giganteus if you’re fancy).
I’ve written quite a few articles about giant isopods. Giant isopods were prominently featured in our epic ocean monograph, Sizing Ocean Giants. I’ve even been fortunate enough to observe novel giant isopod behavior in the deep sea. If Southern Fried Science had a mascot, it would have to be the giant isopod.
When I started Scanning the Sea, I knew that a giant isopod would have to be part of the collection. There was just one problem: 3D scanning marine critters is an imprecise art, and you need to start with a very clean specimen. Most of the giant isopods I had access to had been floating in formalin for decades, or came up in pieces, or were preserved in a twisty, roly-poly ball. They weren’t good candidates for scanning. Read More
Recently a team of scientists on a deep sea expedition in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands aboard the R/V Okeanos Explorer made a monumental discovery… pun intended. While exploring the depths of the seafloor in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, with their remotely operated vehicles (ROV) Seirios and Deep Discover, they discovered and documented the largest sponge ever observed on this planet… or any planet for that matter.
Large hexactinellid sponge found in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (Photo credit: NOAA’s Office of Exploration and Research)
Lateral view of a large hexactinellid sponge found in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument
(Photo credit: NOAA’s Office of Exploration and Research)
Fig 3. Temporal sequence of landscape at/around Hole D/E. From Nakajima et al. 2015.
A longtime submariner I know tells the story of a most unusual dive. On this particular plunge, they went down into the briny deep to place what can best be described as a giant manhole cover on the seafloor. There was a hole, and, by all accounts, the sea was draining in to it.
For more than half-a-century, we’ve been drilling holes in the bottom of the sea. Some reveal the buried history of the evolution of our oceans. Others uncover vast wells of crude oil. Science, exploration, and exploitation have all benefited from ocean drilling programs. But what happens to the seafloor when you punch a hole in the ocean? In my friend’s case, the drilling program opened a sub-sea cavern, resulting in changes to local current regimes, potentially disturbing the surrounding benthic community. The most practical solution was to simply plug the hole.
We’ve punched a lot of holes in the seafloor, but despite a few anecdotes and scant research, we know precious little about how these holes actually alter the marine environment. This is particularly worrying, as deep-sea mining at hydrothermal vents, manganese nodule fields, and oceanic crusts are slowly creeping out of the realm of science fiction and into our oceans. Ocean drilling in the deep sea is perhaps the closest analog to industrial-scale deep-sea mining. Understanding the potential impacts is critical to designing management and mitigation regimes that protect the delicate deep seafloor.
Today, Craig McClain, along with a massive team of ocean scientists (including me!) published our monumental paper: Sizing ocean giants: patterns of intraspecific size variation in marine megafauna. This massive monograph investigates patterns of size among 25 ocean giants, the biggest, most massive members of their respective taxa. You can probably guess which species I had a hand in reviewing.
Along the way, I learned quite a few cool things about the magnificent giants of the deep sea.
1. Giant deep-sea isopods are sexually dimorphic. Read More
In both my professional and private life, I am a man who wears many hats. I am a deep-sea ecologist, a science writer, a goatherd, a geneticist, a conservation advocate, a grill master, and many others. When David asked me to join him in co-authoring “Trophy fishing for species threatened with extinction: A way forward building on a history of conservation” I did so not in my capacity as a marine science Ph.D., but as a recreational fisherman who cares deeply about the survival of his sport. Without fish, there is no fishing.
I was, at first, skeptical, but over the course of a summer, I came to appreciate what David was trying to accomplish.
I wrote most of my thesis on this boat, with a rod in the water.
Before I talk about fish, I need to talk about birds.
Locations of sampling sites of bottom sediment and deep-water coral where content of microplastics was investigated. From Woodall et al. 2014.
Ocean plastics is one of the most pernicious problems facing the ocean. One-time use plastics, which, ironically, can persist for thousands of years, often find themselves carried downstream, settling on our beaches, our coastlines, and in large aggregations within oceanic gyres. We’re still trying to cope with the extent to which plastics, and particularly microplastics–tiny photodegraded plastic particles, impact marine ecosystems. Earlier this year, ocean plastics made major waves when it was reported that not only do we not know how much damage they really cause, but we don’t even know where most of them go: 99% of the plastic that should be in the ocean is missing.
It looks like we found the missing plastic.
The claim: Deep-sea Anglerfish have parasitic dwarf males that fuse to their mates and become nothing more than wibbly gonads hanging off of the much larger female.
Who said it: Well, pretty much everyone. This Oatmeal Comic, Ze Frank, me.
Status: Sometimes true, sometimes false.
Melanocetus johnsonii. Photo by Edith Widder.
I’d like you to meet a very dear friend of mine. This is Melanocetus johnsonii, the humpback anglerfish. If you follow the deep sea at all, you’ve probably met this delightful creature. She was featured on the cover of time magazine, barely losing out to Newt Gingrich for 1995 Vertebrate of the Year. Since then, she has been a standard-bearer for the deep sea, an iconic species, immediately recognizable. Stories of her exploits abound, and no story is more compelling that the tale of the hapless male anglerfish, a parasitic dwarf that lives its entire adult life fused to the larger, more capable female angler fish.
There’s just one problem.
Melanocetus johnsonii, along with the four other anglerfish that make up genus Melanocetus, don’t have parasitic males. Males of this genus are still significantly smaller and lack lures, but they retain their free-swimming lifestyle into adulthood, occasionally biting into the side of a much larger female for a temporary coupling, where gametes and food are exchanged. This temporary coupling, in which no tissue fusion takes place, has been observed only three times: once during the filming of the BBC Blue Planet documentary; once off the coast of Japan; and once, confusingly between a male Melanocetus johnsonii and a completely different species, Centrophryne spinulosa. In none of these instances was the connection permanent, and no reduced males have even been found attached to a Melanocetus. Read More
Ifremeria nautilei from the Manus Basin. Source: MARUM
The mining of deep-sea hydrothermal vents for gold, copper, and other precious metals, is imminent. Over the last seven years I’ve worked with industry, academia, and international regulatory agencies to help craft guidelines for conducting environmental impact studies and assess the connectivity and resilience of deep-sea ecosystems. Deep-sea mining, particularly at hydrothermal vents, is a complicated endeavor. As an ecologist and environmentalist, I’d like to see all deep-sea ecosystems receive extraordinary levels of protection. As a pragmatist and someone who recognizes that access to technology is a human right, I realize that demand for essential resources like copper, cobalt, and rare earth elements is only going to increase.
Mining a deep-sea hydrothermal vent presents a conundrum. Across the world, vents vary in their longevity and proximity to each other. A fast spreading center like those found in western Pacific back-arc basins, can have numerous, densely packed vents that persist for tens of years. In contrast, ultra-slow spreading centers, like the central Indian Ridge, may have a few, sparsely distributed vents that remain active for centuries. The sustainability of deep-sea mining is completely dependent on the type of vents being mined. Vents in slow spreading centers may never recover from any anthropogenic impact, while those in fast spreading centers could be extremely resilient to the disturbance caused by mining.
Aquaman #31 variant cover. Art by Mike Allred.
We’ve traveled far, this last week. From gentle basking sharks gliding across the surface of the North Sea to titanically tiny worms dwelling in the deep. The variant cover for Aquaman #31 is a fantastically diverse sampling of real ocean organisms, many of them not only profoundly weird but also almost entirely unstudied. Mike Allred’s is a small taste of the unknown still waiting to be explored.
I saved the best for last, including my favorite squid and scale worm. Before we dive into these final identifications, let’s take a moment to review.