- The Washington Times - Friday, December 21, 2001

A bizarre creature with 20-foot-long spidery legs that lives in the cold, inky black three miles below the surface of the ocean has been seen alive for the first time in photographs taken by deep-sea submersibles.

"I call it a mystery squid," said Mike Vecchione, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration researcher. "It's unlike any other squid I've ever seen."

Mr. Vecchione, first author of a study appearing today in the journal Science, said the only evidence of the squid comes from photographs and video images taken during submersible dives. However, he said, the findings are persuasive because they came from independent worldwide sightings by scientists from eight institutions in four countries.

The sightings were in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans and in the Gulf of Mexico. The deepest sighting came at 15,534 feet almost three miles below the surface in the Atlantic, off the coast of Brazil.

"Not only is this thing really bizarre, it seems to be fairly common in deep waters all over the world," Mr. Vecchione said.

Little is known about creatures living in the deep waters of the world's oceans, he said.

"This is the largest unexplored part of the Earth by far," Mr. Vecchione said. "I firmly believe that there is a lot of really weird stuff down there that we don't know about. We are really ignorant about what lives on our own planet" at great depths.

The photos show an animal with a relatively small head topped by large fleshy, collarlike fins. Extending from the base of the head are 10 wispy appendages sweeping out for up to 20 feet. Some of the appendages are sharply bent, as if at a joint.

Some scientists reported seeing suckers on the upper part of the limbs.

Suckers are a common feature of squid.

The largest animal sighted was about 21 feet long, but most of that was legs and tentacles

"It is very distinctive with the very long skinny arms, with an elbow," said Mr. Vecchione. "There are 10 appendages there, but they all seem to be pretty much the same. In most squid, two would be tentacles."

The scientist said he could not estimate the weight of the animal but observed that "it is not like a giant squid which has a really massive body. This is a fairly small squid with bizarre arms that stretch on forever."

The deep-water home of the squid is a world of darkness, untouched by light from the surface.

Many animals living there create their own light using the luminescent chemicals in their bodies, but Mr. Vecchione said there was no evidence the squid could make light.

For food, Mr. Vecchione believes, the squid may use its long arms "like a living spider web."

He said the arms appear to have a sticky coating that could entrap small prey.

"I think it dangles those arms until small organisms bump into them," he said. "It is like a snare."

During one Gulf of Mexico sighting, the squid brushed against the submersible and seemed to have problems dislodging its arms from the vessel hull.

"The arms seemed to stick to it [the vessel] and it had trouble letting go," Mr. Vecchione said. This suggests the arms are coated with a sticky mucous, he added.

The mystery squid cannot be named until a specimen is captured and examined, but Mr. Vecchione said it appears similar to the small squid he and others recently discovered in shallow waters of the eastern Pacific Ocean.

Those animals have been named Magnapinnidae pacifica, meaning "big fin of the Pacific."

Mr. Vecchione said the mystery squid may be the adult form of the magnapinnidae.

Roger T. Hanlon, squid researcher at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., said he was "quite impressed" by the discovery reported by the authors.

"It is almost certainly a new family of squids which would be much more significant than a new species," Mr. Hanlon said. "It is a wonderfully humbling reminder of how little we know about some aspects of this planet."

He said the feeding system suggested by Mr. Vecchione for the mystery squid "is quite plausible" and would be unique among cephalopods, a group that includes about 1,000 species of squid, octopus and similar animals.

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