From Sept. 4 to Oct. 7, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration explored the deep-sea ecosystems off the U.S. Atlantic Coast with its ship Okeanos Explorer. By deploying remotely operated underwater vehicles, or ROVs, NOAA researchers were able to plumb the ocean’s depths, collecting baseline data and mapping the mysterious seafloor.
Equipped with lights, cameras, and an array of sensors, the ROVs were able to collect data on their surroundings while capturing a stream of stunning images from their explorations. Along the way, the vehicles encountered a variety of fascinating deep-sea creatures.
Here are a few of the amazing animals the NOAA researchers spotted during their trip.
This small, deep-sea squid — a member of the family Mastigoteuthidae — is rarely observed in its natural habitat. It gets its name from its extra-long, whip-like tentacles, which are covered in tiny suckers to help it hang on to prey.
This might look like a single animal, but a siphonophore is actually a colony of many tiny individuals all working together in one group. Like other siphonophores, the Dandelion feeds and absorbs nutrients as one collective mass.
Like this one, many siphonophores are bioluminescent, meaning chemical reactions in their bodies enable them to glow.
The vampire squid (Vampyroteuthis infernalis) is one strange customer. It gets its name from its unusual, cape-like arms, which are all connected by a flap of tissue. It’s best known for its defensive ability to turn itself “inside out” by stretching its arms upward and folding its skin-flap over its body, turning itself into a little floating ball — much less appealing to hungry predators. He’s hanging out to the right of this image:
This little guy might look like a lobster, but he’s actually more closely related to the hermit crab. Squat lobsters have a penchant for hiding out under rocks or squeezing into crevices, using their sharp claws to sift through the sand for buried snacks. They’re known for their long arms, which can grow to be several times their body length.
A relative of the squat lobster, hermit crabs are beloved for their habit of walking around wearing other animals’ shells. Hermit crabs can range in size from a few millimeters wide to more than three feet from leg to leg. The largest species is the coconut crab, which doesn’t even bother wearing someone else’s shell.
The sea star belongs to a class of animals closely related to sea urchins and sand dollars. There are about 2,000 species in all — the most common varieties have five arms, but others can have dozens and can grow to be several feet in diameter. Sea stars are best known for their ability to regenerate lost limbs, which means this little guy should be back to normal soon.
For many people, the phrase “sea cucumber” may evoke images of a shapeless, colorless blob at the bottom of the ocean. But, in fact, sea cucumbers come in a variety of colours and shapes, like this spiky specimen below. Members of the same phylum as sea stars and sea urchins, sea cucumbers can range from a few millimeters to a few feet long. They feed by catching particles that drift by in the ocean current, or by sifting through sand at the bottom of the sea.
Polychaetes, like the little purple one below, are marine worms. Their name, which means “having much hair,” comes from the bristly protrusions that form a kind of fringe around their bodies. These “parapodia,” as they’re called, help the worms move around.
Chimaeras, sometimes referred to as “ghost sharks,” have skeletons made of cartilage, just like sharks and rays. They inhabit all kinds of water systems, from rivers and estuaries to the deep sea, where this one was photographed.
That large, colorless lump in the photo below isn’t a rock or a coral — it’s a xenophyphore, the largest single-celled organism in the world. Resting on top of it is a brittle star, an organism easily recognised by its slender, spiky arms and small, round body.
This sea sponge might look kind of like a coral, or even an underwater plant, but it’s actually an animal. Sea sponges have no brains, and they don’t move around. Instead, their bodies are full of pores, which allow water to flow in and out and deliver food and oxygen to the body. This one has several feathery marine animals called crinoids resting on top of it.
Sea spiders are arthropods, just like insects, arachnids, and crustaceans. Although they bear a striking resemblance to the eight-legged critters you see building webs outside your window (or maybe under your bed), sea spiders belong to an entirely separate class of animals. They eat a variety of organisms and feed vampire-style — sucking out their prey’s body fluids through their straw-like mouthparts.
Blue hake is well known as a favourite dish around the world — but before it gets to the table, it spends its time swimming around the southwest Pacific waters. It goes by a handful of different names, including hoki, blue grenadier, and whiptail hake.
Octocorals are so named because each polyp — the tiny animals that, grouped together, make up a coral — has eight feathery tentacles. This one happens to be growing in a smooth spiral, but octocorals come in a variety of shapes and colours.
This sun star is a species of sea star. This one has nine arms, but they can have fewer or or more, depending on the individual.
King crabs, sometimes called stone crabs, comprise the family Lithodidae. They’re a prized seafood, particularly the red king crab, which is found along the coast of Alaska and Canada.
For a nudibranch, this little guy has subdued style — nudibranchs are famous for their dazzling colours and patterns. These soft-bodied mollusks feed on other sea animals, including coral, sponges, and anemones, and some are able to retain the poisons they ingest while eating these toxic creatures, becoming poisonous, themselves.
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