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Contact: Jana Goldman
Many scientific discoveries begin with scientists asking, "Hey, did you see that?" This was certainly true when a group of researchers led by the Commerce Department's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) spotted a 21-foot-long squid, dubbed the "Mystery Squid," while conducting an undersea project.
So named by the researchers until its true classification and naming is complete, the Mystery Squid is featured in an article in the Dec. 21 issue of the journal Science. Its taxonomy is under way by scientist Michael Vecchione of NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Services Systematics Laboratory at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.
The NOAA sighting of the Mystery Squid is the most recent of a string of eight sightings worldwide as described in Science, and took place during a National Undersea Research Program (NURP) mission in the Gulf of Mexico last year. While investigating gas hydrates at a depth of approximately 6,300 feet below the surface, a Mystery Squid drifted close to the submersible Alvin.
"The scientists in the submersible got a good close-up look and saw tiny suckers along some of the arms," said Vecchione, a co-author of the Science article. "While the squid at first did not seem to mind the presence of the submersible, it did move away after a few minutes, but not before the scientists were able to get some good images on video.
Vecchione, whose specialty is cephalopods squids, octopods, and their relatives knew of sightings of strange, unknown squids from around the world. He arranged for scientists from eight institutions in four countries to pool their observations and document the worldwide occurrence of these unusual animals. Of the eight squid sightings noted in Science, the earliest is September 1988 off of northern Brazil. The Mystery Squid has also been seen west of Africa, in the Indian Ocean, and in Hawaii, at depths ranging from 6,300 to 15,390 feet.
"These squids are not just a new species, they are very different from any squid ever seen before. None of the squids had been collected, but they have the same characteristics extremely long, slender arms and tentacles that have elbows,' and very large fins extending beyond the end of the body. One of the squids was estimated to be about 21 feet long and another was 13 to 16 feet long."
Vecchione noted that scientists cannot be certain of the identity of these squids until specimens are captured.
"They are very similar to the family Magnapinnidae, which has unusual slender tentacles and arms and very large terminal fins," Vecchione said in concurrence with the nine other co-authors of the article.
He suggested that the Mystery Squid could be the never-before-seen adult of the squid family Vecchione and another of the co-authors recently described and classified from two juveniles and a larval-like specimen.
"The open waters of the very deep ocean, at depths greater than about 3,000 feet, make up by far the largest but the least known ecosystem of the earth. From the number of sightings, it seems that these are fairly common large animals in very deep water. That they have not been previously observed or captured, indicates how little is known about life in the deep ocean," Vecchione said.
NOAA created an Office of Ocean Exploration this year to share ocean discoveries with the public and use new technologies to explore the ocean. One focus of Ocean Exploration is to facilitate the sharing of what is known and what is being discovered about the oceans.
"The discovery of the Mystery Squid is one of the first fruits of the expanded outreach through the Office of Ocean Exploration," said Barbara Moore, NURP director. "While Dr. Vecchione had no direct connection to the expedition, he was able to see the images that were sent back almost immediately and incorporate them in his work instead of waiting possibly years for them to be published."
NOAA's Office of Ocean Exploration was organized by presidential mandate to meet the challenges faced by the scientific community in exploring the last frontier on Earth, and provide a means of sharing information.
The Commerce Department's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is dedicated to enhancing economic security and national safety through prediction and research of climate-related events and providing environmental stewardship of our nation's coastal and marine resources.
To learn more about NOAA, visit http://www.noaa.gov.