By Julia Zeh
Edited by Arianna Winchester
Recent deep-sea expeditions have shown us that we don’t know much about the creatures lurking beneath the surface of the ocean. We see organisms that look and behave completely differently from creatures found on the surface, probably because the deepest parts of the ocean are so different from the conditions closer to us. For example, because these parts of the ocean are so dark, deep-sea creatures often lose their bright coloring to adapt to their shadowy environment. Some of these creatures look so strange and alien that they are almost the stuff of nightmares!
The deepest part of the Mariana Trench is called the Challenger Deep, found in the western Pacific Ocean, just east of the Philippines. At Challenger Deep, the ocean floor lies seven miles below the ocean’s surface. To put this depth into perspective, the Challenger Deep is over a mile deeper than Mount Everest is tall. Very few people have ever travelled to the bottom, a place of high pressure, low temperature, and total darkness. Though we may assume the extreme conditions in Challenger Deep make it unable to sustain life, we find that the sides of the trench are home to many diverse life forms.
The life we find hidden in the depths of the ocean are quite different than the organisms that live closer to the surface. Most notably, an expedition in 2014 discovered a new species of snailfish that is able to survive at a lower depth than any other species of fish previously identified.
This variety of snailfish was found over five miles deep in the Mariana Trench. The researchers described this “superfish” as appearing completely different from any other species of fish that the researchers had ever seen before. It has wing-like fins on its side, an odd-shaped head, and looks very fragile and tissue-like as it glides through the water. This new fish lies at the boundary of a theoretical limit, beyond which scientists believe the extreme pressure would make it impossible for any fish to survive. Though the scientists were able to attract these snailfish to a camera, they couldn’t catch any specimens for further study, which is necessary for it to be named a new species. Alas, the snailfish remains a mystery.
Also caught on film were another type of very rare organisms named supergiant amphipods. These amphipods are described as shrimp-like crustaceans that are found in abundance in the Mariana Trench. During James Cameron’s recent expedition to Challenger Deep in 2012, the researchers observed supergiant amphipods as large as one foot. Consequentially, these organisms were termed “supergiant” since normal amphipods found closer to the surface are usually about the size of the top of a thumb, On land, this would be like seeing a caterpillar grow to the size of a small cat.
With each new research trip to extreme depths of the ocean, video footage and photographs of deep-sea creatures are brought back that send shivers up our spines, both at the eerie physical appearance of the creatures and the intrigue regarding something about which so little is known.
Watch video footage of creatures filmed in the depths of the Mariana Trench here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6N4xmNGeCVU