The depths of Mother Earth’s waters harbor no end of fascinating deep-sea creatures, most of them unseen, and many of them not even discovered.
Some, like the oarfish, only come to the surface to die.
But sometimes these animals are stumbled upon in their element. The Nautilus Live expedition of the Ocean Exploration Trust, an organization founded by Robert Ballard, who discovered the Titanic, exists purely to survey the seas. On a recent trip its unmanned submarine’s cameras caught a truly astonishing sight: a rarely seen siphonophore.
“I thought it was an old tire,” said one onlooker in this video, “or a plastic bag,” said another. These initial conceptions quickly gave way to the revelation that they were looking at a life form. Numerous life forms, in fact.
More remarkable than its appearance is what this animal is actually made up of: It is not a single organism but a “roving colony made up of thousands of individual organisms, called zooids, each contributing to the whole,” as Iflscience.com put it. Working in concert, they create, in this case, the feathery body, chainsaw-like front end and undulating tentacles.
The best-known siphonophore species is the deadly Portugese Man O' War, which looks like a jellyfish but most assuredly isn’t, according to National Geographic.
The siphonophore is in fact a tad reminiscent of the oarfish, though they are completely dissimilar in size and are not related as species.
Siphonophores have the added mystique of challenging what we think we know about individuality, as the website Siphonophores.org notes.
“Siphonophores challenge us to think about what we mean when we call something an individual, a concept that we usually think of as being quite straightforward," the website said. "Is a single zooid or an entire colony the siphonophore ‘individual’? The answer is that you have to specify what features you are interested in before you can expect a meaningful answer.”
Huh? Well, if you’re talking ecologically, the organism functions as a single entity, so it could be thought of as an individual. But looking at them through the lens of evolution, and further, from the standpoint of descent of each component, shows that “just as this leads us to recognize that bat wings are modified arms, it shows that siphonophore zooids are [comprised of] structures that can be free living animals in other species,” Siphonophores.org said.
Not meta enough for you? The same conundrum arises when one brings humanity and all our variegated cells into the mix, starting from the viewpoint of an amoeba.
“It should be noted that an Amoeba, which is a solitary cell, would have much the same trouble contemplating the individuality of a human,” Siphonophore.org said. “Humans function as ecological, behavioral, and evolutionary individuals. But they are made up of many cells. So is the entire human an individual, or are each of the cells individuals?”
Watch the video, as you engage in some metaphysical musings on this fascinating life form.