When you think about the world’s longest animal, it is natural to imagine a whale or a giant squid. However, there is one creature that beats both in terms of length, and you would never be able to guess what it is! Scientists have recently discovered a long, spiraling marine organism called a “siphonophore” deep beneath the sea near Western Australia. Though most species of siphonophores tend to be quite long, this one is thought to be the longest ever found, and its outer ring could be around 150 feet long. If that is true, it would mean the creature is 50 feet longer than the blue whale!
When talking about siphonophores, it is important to mention that they are not one animal. Rather, each siphonophore is made up of a colony of many small clones which are called “zooids.” These zooids are all identical and they share the same DNA. A large number of zooids connect to create a string-like shape. Like jellyfish, siphonophores are predators and they also have stringers that they use to feed on small fish, small crustaceans, and plankton such as krill and copepods.
Despite being genetically identical, all the zooids of a siphonophore colony are not exactly the same, and each zooid plays a specific role. For example, some are there to just swim, some are there to eat, and some do the job of stinging. To fulfill their specific purpose, the zooids arrange themselves in neat, repeating orders within their colony. It is a lot like arranging different shapes and colors of beads in a single string. Though members of the same species have the same pattern of zooids, their order may vary.
The discovery was made by a group of scientists who were on an expedition that was led by a non-profit organization called the Schmidt Ocean Institute. Nerida Wilson, who is the expedition leader and a senior research scientist currently working at the Western Australia Museum, stated that the discovery came when most of the researchers on the vessel were not expecting it. In fact, the creature was spotted as deep as 630 meters when the underwater vehicle was on its way back to the surface. Though most of the experts had vacated the control room, they soon got back to witness this marvelous creature that looked like a “spiral UFO.”
Although they are still figuring out the siphonophore’s actual length, they suspect the entire creature to be over 120 meters or 390 feet in total length. The spiraling, stringy organism that was caught on video is thought to be three times longer than a humpback whale and twice as long as an average blue whale.
The researchers used a high-tech vessel and ROV (remotely operated vehicle) to dive as deep as 4,439 meters underwater. The group conducted a total of 20 dives and discovered a number of deep-sea creatures that were previously undocumented. Some of these include giant hydroids, glass sponges, a long-tailed sea cucumber, and an octopus squid. These marine animals, including the longest siphonophore, were found in a protected area called the Gascoyne Coast bioregion. Even though it is a protected area of the ocean, the experts had no idea about the biodiversity that it hides, and the researchers aimed to explore just that.