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Once again Ferrebeekeeper plunges into the abyssal depths of the ocean seeking a bizarre and barely known cephalopod—the elbow squid. Elbow squid, also colloquially known as “bigfin squid” are deep sea squid of the genus Magnapinna. Although they have been known to science since at least 1907 when a juvenile specimen was found and categorized, the strange animals are a real enigma to scientists. No adult specimens were known until the 1980s and only in the cotemporary era of widespread deep-sea robots were pictures of the living animals obtained.
But WHAT pictures! These images were worth the wait: of all Earth creatures which are not microbes, the elbow squid may well be the most unfamiliar and alien in appearance. Indeed, I have seen plenty artist’s conceptions of extraterrestrial life and precious few looked as bizarre as the elbow squid. The animals have extremely long tentacles which dangle at right angles from 10 upper arms (which project at right angles from the squid’s cylindrical body. The visual impact of this crazy arrangement is even more dramatic than it sounds.
Shell oil used a submersible robot to film a specimen hanging around their deep water oil platform “Perdido” (which is 200 miles offshore from Houston in the Gulf of Mexico) and the squid’s tentacles were reliably 9 to 10 meters (26-30 feet) long. These animals are different from giant squid—but they are also giant squid.
So why on Earth do elbow squid have such long arms? We simply do not know. Some scientists speculate that it brushes along the ocean bottom gathering up sluggish meals with its long arms. Other mollusk theorists(?) think it is like a brittle starfish and lies on the bottom as the tentacles write around. Yet another school believes the ten tentacles are for active predatory grabbing—the squid is like a fisherman with ten lassos. Perhaps it combines these and other behaviors. Other cephalopods are well known for being versatile and clever.
I would love to tell you about the hopes and fears of this strange denizen of the deeps. What animals prey on it (Sperm whales and elephant seals presumably, but what else?)? What is its love life like? How long do they live? But we don’t even know what these things eat. How it would fill out a Zoosk profile is particularly beyond our kin. The elbow squid is at the tantalizing juncture between the known and the unknown. Undoubtedly we will learn more, but for now we will just have to be content that we have seen them at all.
Today’s post is simultaneously inspiring and hopeful and terrifying. Marine researchers have long been worried about the crown-of-thorns starfish, a monstrous invasive invertebrate which eats coral, doing irreparable damage to the Great Barrier Reef (the world’s largest coral reef). Human divers have proven ineffective at stemming the onslaught, so conservationists have teamed up with mad scientists to build COTSBOT—an autonomous killing robot submarine which will haunt the reef like a bright yellow uboat/shark. The COTSBOT will locate and identify crown-of-thorns starfish with robot eyes and then jet over and deliver a lethal injection to the vile invertebrates. The injectable solution is uniquely poisonous to starfish so any goddamn MFAs doing starfish cosplay projects on the reef do not necessarily need to worry about more than being jabbed and pumped full of weird chemicals by a nightmarish (albeit comic) undersea robot.
COTSBOT (which I should have mentioned stands for “Crown-OF-Thorns Starfish Robot”) is going to debut in Moreton Bay by Brisbane, a starfish free location where the operators can refine its navigation systems. If all goes well it will then move on the Great Barrier Reef itself. The robot (or fleets thereof) will scour an area of the reef killing, Then human divers will sweep in afterwards to mop up any hardened survivors. I am extremely impressed at how quickly science managed to make my futuristic ocean sketch come true. I am also struck with admiration at this high-cost high tech salvation for one of Earth’s most diverse and imperiled ecosystems. Take that, evil starfish! You have messed with a reef protected by the fell hand of man. The alarmist in me can’t help but notice that this is like the first 15 minutes of a horror movie, but, presumably if COTSBOT becomes sentient and decides to protect the reef from ALL dangerous invasive animals we can still pull the plug. I’m also a bit sorry that humankind has so injured the Giant Triton–nature’s COTSBOT–that the lovely snail can not do the job.