The deep-sea eel that shocked scientists

By Bec Crew | September 24, 2018

Meet the gulper eel.

Contributor

Bec Crew

Becky Crew is a Sydney-based science communicator with a love for weird and wonderful animals. From strange behaviours and special adaptations to newly discovered species and the researchers who find them, her topics celebrate how alien yet relatable so many of the creatures that live amongst us can be.

IF YOU’VE EVER seen one of those live feeds from a deep-sea rover, exploring the ocean floor several kilometres below the surface, you’ll know that the best part isn’t always the mysterious lifeform that suddenly crops up on screen.

It’s the scientists watching alongside us.

Footage released late last week is a perfect example of this, as a team of researchers from the Nautilus Expedition lose their marbles over an inflated gulper eel.

And we can’t blame them, because it’s absolutely insane:

Exploration Vessel (E/V) Nautilus is a 64-metre ship owned by the Ocean Exploration Trust, and it’s equipped with a fleet of remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) that can be used to explore little-studied parts of the ocean to depths of 4 km.

The Ocean Exploration Trust is run by no other than Dr Robert Ballard, known for discovering the wreck of the Titanic and the German battleship Bismarck.

 He takes education and outreach very seriously, which is why a full-equipped studio was built on board E/V Nautilus. It not  only allows researchers to stream their discoveries to the world in real-time, but they’re also regularly doing interviews with students, teachers, museums, and science centres around the world.

Because let’s face it – half the fun of discovering something is showing it to everyone.

So, when one of the Nautilus’ ROVs find something ridiculous lurking thousands of metres under the sea, we all get to react to it together, and oh boy, did that gulper eel give us a show.

It was spotted about 1.5 km deep in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument – a 1,510,000-km-squared World Heritage listed region in US waters, which was expanded four times by President Obama to become, at the time, the world’s largest marine protected area.

Gulper eels (Eurypharynx pelecanoides) are found all over the world, including off the north-western coast of Western Australia, northern Queensland, and New South Wales.

They are very rarely seen because they live so deep in the ocean, and even rarer is the opportunity to see one do what it does best – inflate its jaws like a pelican (hence the nickname, pelican eel).

Just like a pelican, the gulper eel inflates its jaws to inhale its prey. And it makes them look several times bigger than they actually are. The eel in the footage is thought to be a juvenile, because these things can stretch to almost a metre long when fully grown.

Here’s what they look like when they’re not inflated:

For more highlights from the Nautilus Expedition team, here’s when they encounter a gorgeous – and curious! – sperm whale:

And here’s when they make fun of a poor googly-eyed stubby squid, who’s just trying to live:

Check out more of their expedition videos in their YouTube feed, which features things like sea pickle blizzards, creepy chimaeras, and spectacular siphonophores.