Otherworldly, String-Like Organism Spotted in Deep Sea Is Made Up of 'Millions of Interconnected Clones'

Researchers have captured fascinating video footage of an otherworldly organism in the waters off the coast of Western Australia.

A team aboard the RV Falkor—the flagship research vessel of the Schmidt Ocean Institute (SOI)—spotted the organism, a type of siphonophore known as Apolemia, using a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) in a deep-sea environment known as the Ningaloo Canyons.

"Check out this beautiful *giant* siphonophore Apolemia recorded on #NingalooCanyons expedition. It seems likely that this specimen is the largest ever recorded, and in strange UFO-like feeding posture," SOI wrote in a Twitter post.

Resembling a long piece of string, siphonophores—a group of creatures related to jellyfish and corals—may look like one organism, but they are actually made up of many thousands of individual, specialized clones that come together to form a single entity.

With the help of lasers mounted onto their ROV—known as SuBastian—the Falkor scientists estimated that this siphonophore's outer ring measured 49 feet in diameter, suggesting that this section alone is 154 foot in length, or about as tall as an 11-story building.

"The entire creature is much, much longer. The crew is estimating it to be more than 120 meters in total length—possibly over 390 feet long," Logan Mock-Bunting, a spokesperson for the Schmidt Ocean Institute, told Newsweek. "We are in the process of outside confirmation of these measurements."

Siphonophores like this one are deep-sea predators that lie in wait for unfortunate animals to come into contact with the stinging cells found on some of the specialized clones.

"This animal is a kind of jelly, called a siphonophore. It's made of millions of interconnected clones, like if the Borg and the Clone Wars had a baby together. There are about a dozen different jobs a clone can do in the colony, and each clone is specialized to a particular task," Rebecca Helm, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina Asheville who saw the SOI video, wrote in a Twitter thread.

"I've gone on numerous expeditions and have never, EVER, seen anything like this. Let me tell you what this is and why it is blowing my mind," she said. "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."

According to Helm, some of the clones that make up the siphonophore specialize in catching prey with the help of the aforementioned stinging cells.

"Their slender bodies hang with a single long tentacle dangling like a hook-studded fishing line," Helm said. "A siphonophore colony in a line creates a curtain of deadly tentacles in the open ocean, but in THIS case, the animal is hunting in a galaxy-like spiral, the long wisp-like tentacles draped below. And the colony does not need to move to feed."

siphonophore, Apolemia
A screenshot of the siphonophore video. Schmidt Ocean Institute

"Once a clone captures its prey—a fish or crustacean—it will reel it to the colony & other clones that work as mouths will surround it. Often many swallowing it at once. Once they prey is digested, they'll send the nutrients through a long digestive tract that travels down the whole colony, so that every other clone can use the nutrients. In this way, this siphonophore may remain still and feed for a long time, and I mean LONG," she said.

While it is difficult to determine how old a siphonophore colony is, Helm suggests that the animal in the video could be tens or possibly hundreds of years old.

"Everything in the deep sea grows incredibly slowly. It's only a few degrees above freezing, life takes time to grow," she said.

"This is one of the largest and most stunning and pristine siphonophores that I've ever seen. And to think, there are millions, probably billions of underwater siphonophore galaxies out there just like this one. Siphonophores are not rare, just fragile and remote. As we explore the ocean's more, who knows what other creatures we will see."

The deep-sea environment of the Ningaloo Canyons remains almost unexplored, although the wider region of the Ningaloo Coast—located on the north-west coast of Western Australia—is known for its incredible biodiversity.

"This expedition will be a wonderful opportunity to shed some light on some of this region's unseen biodiversity," Nerida Wilson, leader of the Falkor team from the Western Australian Museum, said in a statement.

This article has been updated to include comments from Logan Mock-Bunting.

Correction 4/8/20, 11:16 a.m.: The headline and article has been corrected to make it clear that the outer ring of the siphonophore is estimated to measure 154 feet in length, while the entire organism is thought to be larger—potentially around 390 feet in length.

Otherworldly, String-Like Organism Spotted in Deep Sea Is Made Up of 'Millions of Interconnected Clones' | Tech & Science