Scientists have found a large ocean creature that looks like spiraled silly string, CNET reported. The creature is called a siphonophore and its outer ring is nearly 50 feet in diameter. Its closest relative seems to be jellyfish.
According to CNET, the siphonophore was discovered in the deep sea by oceanographers in early April. “Scientists on the Schmidt Ocean Institute’s research vessel Falkor are isolated on the ocean during an expedition to study the Ningaloo Canyons off the western coast of Australia,” the article said. “They found something flabbergasting in the deep sea: a crazy-long ocean creature called a siphonophore. Schmidt Ocean tweeted a video of what looks like a huge line of silly string sprayed in a spiral pattern in the water.”
CNET said that the strange creature is related to jellyfish, which are part of a marine life group called cnidarians.
Cnidarians: Lifeforms You Didn’t Know You Knew
Jellyfish are one of the most common forms of life in one of three groups called cnidarians. But how are they classified?
“All cnidarians possess a specialized form of cell known as a cnidocyte, or a stinging cell,” said Dr. Sean K. Todd, the Steven K. Katona Chair in Marine Sciences at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine. “A cnidocyte has the ability to send out a long organelle that can either attach itself to prey or inject a hypotoxin.”
Dr. Todd said that cnidarians can be split into three main groups. Anthozoa produce polyps and include corals and sea anemones. Myxozoa are mostly parasitic lifeforms. Finally, medusozoa primarily consist of species of jellyfish. They can be either planktonic—meaning they share qualities with free-floating plankton—or sessile. Sessile cnidarians are fixed in one place and immobile.
“Cnidarians are primarily radially symmetrical and have relatively simple body designs,” Dr. Todd said. “Jellyfish are planktonic for a majority of their life cycle but have a brief sessile stage; anthozoans, on the other hand, are principally sessile except for their planktonic dispersal phase.”
The Key Element: Cnidocytes
Dr. Todd said that feeding methods among cnidarians are similar. A tentacle armed with cnidocytes catch prey and direct it towards the creature’s mouth. The mouth, in turn, opens into a “gastrovascular cavity”—which is basically a sack of digestive juices. The toxicity of the cnidocytes varies a great deal.
“Most humans would probably not feel the sting of a sea anemone,” he said. “However, the sea wasp, a type of box jelly, is widely recognized as the most lethal of all jellyfish, and can be fatal to humans.”
Dr. Todd added that he had been stung by a jellyfish once and the symptoms lasted for a full month.
These cnidocytes are so central to cnidarians that even jellyfish-like species without them are classified as entirely different kinds of creatures. Comb jellies are one example.
“In spite of their name, comb jellies are not jellyfish but belong to a separate phylum known as ctenophora,” Dr. Todd said. “They have a similar morphology to jellyfish; however, they lack stinging cells, and for locomotion they have rows of cilia that are spaced so close together that they scatter light like a prism. The effect is that when swimming, one sees a rainbow of colors beating along the row of cilia.”
Like the comb jellies, the massive spinophora is a visual marvel. Oceanographers have much to learn about it.
Dr. Sean K. Todd contributed to this article. Dr. Todd holds the Steven K. Katona Chair in Marine Sciences at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine. He received a Joint Honours undergraduate degree in Marine Biology and Oceanography from Bangor University in the United Kingdom and his master’s and doctoral degrees in Biopsychology at Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John’s, Canada.