Space may be the final frontier, but it is an unexplored frontier a bit closer to home that has long captured the imagination. In 1869, with the publication of “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea,” Jules Verne captured the imagination of the seafaring nations.
The deepest ocean trenches have long been physically off-limits to human exploration. Without a solid understanding of the deep marine environment, the human imagination created a host of monsters, giant and terrifying sea creatures and even underwater kingdoms. As technology has advanced and humans are able to explore more of the deep oceans, it is possible to find links between the mythology and some newly discovered marine organisms.
Ironically, some of the technologies developed for exploring the farthest distances away from the Earth are adaptable for use exploring the deep ocean trenches closest to the Earth. Remotely controlled craft, resistant to the extreme pressures of the deep ocean, have been able to probe the darkness with extremely sensitive instrumentation which is able to sample the environment and send back data.
The discoveries include bacteria which are sulfur-based instead of the normal carbon-based life forms on terrestrial Earth which live at the extreme temperatures in and around the volcanic vents on the deep ocean floor. There are delicate jelly fish in colors not seen at the ocean surface. There are fields of never-before-seen tubeworms and an entire host of heretofore unknown species.
The creatures which capture the imagination the most are the adaptations of familiar animals to life in the deep ocean. The frilled shark and the fang tooth fish look like something from the mind of George Lucas. Some of the most fascinating adaptations have occurred in the crustaceans. Without predation and some of the other risks associated with life in the upper oceans, the arthropods are truly kings.
The Spider Crab has been found at depths of 1,000 feet off the coast of Japan. This animal has been known to reach a size of 12 feet from claw tip to claw tip.
Owners of home aquaria may be familiar with beach fleas, scuds or well shrimp. These are members of a group of animals called amphipods. They feed on algae and detritus and are an important food source for other aquatic life. Typical freshwater species are less than ½ inch in length when mature. Marine amphipods were believed to be restricted to the same relative size near the ocean surface with some deep water species known to reach one inch in length. Giant amphipods were discovered in 1980 off the coast of Hawaii and were later reported while exploring the ocean depths of Antarctica. These “monsters” were four inches long and held the record among amphipods for size until a vessel called the Kaharoa sailing with a team of scientists from New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States was exploring the deep waters of the Kermadec Trench.
On February 2, 2012, the world was introduced to an amphipod which was bigger than scientists ever thought possible. This amphipod lives at a depth of over four miles, where pressures can measure up to one thousand times the atmospheric pressure at sea level. It measures a whopping 13 inches. This animal is very elusive. One day the scientists were able to film nine individuals and trap another seven. The next day they were nowhere to be seen.
As with their smaller cousins living closer to the surface, these animals are scavengers, cleaning detritus from the deep ocean floor. They travel in schools, rather than living in solitude. They do not stay long in one place; rather, they are constantly moving in search of food. At this point, little else is known about their behavior or their biology.
These amphipods share their environment with brightly colored decapods, upside down and backward-swimming isopods and a host of other highly adapted crustaceans scientists have only just begun to discover. As oceanographers continue to explore the depths with deep water cameras and robotic craft, they will be able to learn more about the animals who share this planet with humans. Who knows what other amazing species remain to be discovered lurking in the deep ocean trenches. Just as the Supergiant Amphipods replaced the Giant Amphipods as kings of the deep, one day they too they may be replaced by another, as yet undiscovered, animal.