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Credit: Schmidt Ocean Institute

Bizarre, Borg-like deep sea predator is composed of millions of clones

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Apr 14, 2020, 2:00 AM EDT (Updated)

There are stranger things lurking in the ocean's depths than mankind can often conceive, as evidenced by the recent discovery of a massive colonial organism called a siphonophore beneath the waves off the coast of Western Australia.

Per a report in Newsweek, scientists from the Western Australia Museum and the Schmidt Ocean Institute of Palo Alto, Calfornia, encountered this odd deep-sea predator while investigating the abyssal submarine canyons off Ningaloo on the research vessel Falkor. Deploying their advanced underwater robot, ROV SuBastian, the team completed 20 dives at depths up to 4,500 meters during 181 hours of exploratory research.

"While a siphonophore appears to be simple string of jelly, it is actually an elongate colony of specialized individuals," Head of Aquatic Zoology at the Western Australian Museum and Co-PI, Dr. Lisa Kirkendale tells SYFY WIRE. "Some of these units are specialized for predatory feeding and many siphonophores prey on microcrustaceans. This giant, seemingly the largest of its kind ever discovered, was found in the eastern Indian ocean by a team of scientists onboard the RV Falkor, flagship of the Schmidt Ocean Institute. Coming across this massive siphonophore was spectacular and mesmerizing. The fact that it occurred amidst so many other significant discoveries on the trip speaks to how much we still have to discover about our oceans."

Looking like something out of a classic science fiction B movie, this gelatinous, stringy siphonophore is composed of millions of tiny cloned organisms called zooids. Many of the smaller components are equipped with lethal stinging cells that stun and kill the bizarre animal's intended prey. Those specialized organisms connect into a coiled string that cooperate together as a team.

According to Logan Mock-Bunting of the Schmidt Ocean Institute, this particular Apolemia specimen measured approximately 49 feet in diameter, with its outer ring a colossal 154 feet in length. However, the whole jelly-like creature is much longer longer than that, and the dedicated Falkor's crew believes it be over 390 feet long, making it one of the largest siphonophores ever recorded and the longest animal ever found in the Indian Ocean.

Witnessed in a saucer-shaped feeding position, the fragile organism floats in the fathomless depths searching for food like some otherworldly phantom.

“It’s made of millions of interconnected clones, like if the Borg and the Clone Wars had a baby together,” Rebecca Helm, an assistant professor at University of North Carolina Asheville, explained in a recent Twitter thread. “There are about a dozen different jobs a clone can do in the colony, & each clone is specialized to a particular task. Let me tell you what this is and why it is blowing my mind. Most of the siphonophore colonies I’ve seen are maybe 20 centimeters long, maybe a meter. But THIS animal is massive. AND not just massive, the colony is exhibiting a stunning behavior: it’s hunting.”

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