This newly found ‘doom spiral’ could be the longest organism ever seen

You want to hear something intimidating? Out there in the ocean right now is a lifeform that is longer than the Statue of Liberty is tall, made up of thousands of tiny creatures that are all working together in perfect synchronicity to do one thing: feed.
Contributor

Bec Crew

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.

By Bec Crew April 14, 2020 Reading Time: 2 Minutes

THOUGHT TO BE more than 120 metres long, this giant siphonophore – a type of marine organism related to jellyfish and corals – was spotted off the coast of Western Australia a couple of weeks ago by a team from the Western Australian Museum and the Schmidt Ocean Institute, Curtin University, and Geoscience Australia.

The scientists have been using an underwater robot called SuBastian to explore the deep-sea Ningaloo Canyons, part of the Ningaloo Reef system, which is one of the longest near-shore reefs in the world and Australia’s largest fringing reef system, stretching 300 kilometres along the north-west coast.

The Ningaloo Canyons are a little-studied environment, harbouring an array of new lifeforms just waiting to be discovered.

Some 30 new species were found as part of the recent expedition onboard the research vessel RV Falkor, and it was the first time that creatures such as the bioluminescent Taning’s octopus squid have been seen off the coast of Western Australia.

But it’s the siphonophore that really got scientists talking:

“I’ve gone on numerous expeditions and have never, EVER, seen anything like this,” jellyfish researcher, Rebecca Helm, wrote in a Twitter thread.

“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 cm long, maybe a metre. But THIS animal is massive. AND not just massive, the colony is exhibiting a stunning behaviour: it’s hunting.”

Helm suggests that, because animals in cold, deep waters generally grow slowly, this particular siphonophore is likely tens, possibly hundreds, of years old.

It belongs to the Apolemia genus, and like all siphonophores, is made up of a colony of organisms called zooids. Siphonophore zooids are either connected to each other by tissues or encased in the one long exoskeleton.

The notorious bluebottle (Physalia utriculus) is a species of siphonophore, as is the box jellyfish and the string jellyfish (Apolemia uvaria), seen here:

(Image credit: WaterFrame/Alamy)

All siphonophores are predatory carnivores. They stalk crustaceans, fish, and other small prey by laying a ‘curtain’ of tentacles as a trap. These tentacles are equipped with toxin-laced ‘harpoons’ that shoot into unsuspecting prey, paralysing it. 

Only certain members of a siphonophore colony have mouths (some zooids play the role of the legs, others the hearts) and they eat for the entire organism.

If you want to see more of the Ningaloo Canyons expedition, check out the Schmidt Ocean Institute’s YouTube channel.

Here are some highlights: