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17th of November 2018


They’re Blue, Pink and Purple, and No One Has Ever Seen Them Before

Out of the blackness of the deep, deep ocean comes a snub-nosed creature. It undulates up to a dead mackerel on a stick, thoughtfully lowered by scientists from the surface, and snaps its jaws.

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This is a species of snailfish, and it’s never been seen before by human eyes. Snailfish look like fat, short eels and live all over the ocean, from shallow rock pools to the deepest trenches. This one, named the blue snailfish by its discoverers, lives at the bottom of the Atacama Trench, a great gash in the ocean floor nearly five miles deep off the coast of Chile and Peru.

The group from Newcastle University that observed it winched a lander, including a camera, the dead mackerel and other gear down into the depths this spring. Now the group has announced at this week’s Challenger Conference for Marine Science that they also discovered two additional species of snailfish, called for now the pink and purple snailfishes.

The snailfish of the deep ocean is a strange beast. For one thing, it’s quite mushy.

ImageCT scans of a purple snailfish discovered in the Atacama trench.CreditNewcastle University/Imaging and Analysis Centre, London Natural History Museum

“The tissue is almost entirely gel,” said Thomas Linley, a research associate at Newcastle University who worked on the project. “They are really supported by the water around them.”

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Their teeth and the tiny bones in the inner ear are the hardest parts of their bodies, and bringing snailfish up from the depths can feel like an exercise in futility. Without the pressure of the water and the chill of the deep ocean, they appear to melt on reaching the surface.

“They fall apart at like the molecular level,” Dr. Linley said. “It’s like a ghost thing that’s disappearing in front of your eyes.”

That makes it all the more exciting that the team managed to trap a purple snailfish. They have kept the body in a carefully controlled environment for further study.

The discoveries confirm a hunch the team had that if you look in any given deep ocean trench, there will be at least one new species of snailfish.

So far, the same group has discovered the Mariana snailfish and the ethereal snailfish in the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific Ocean, and there is a specialized snailfish species in Kermadec Trench in the South Pacific as well.

ImagePurple, pink and blue snailfish.CreditNewcastle University

This may be because shallow-water snailfish gain adaptations that let them thrive in the deepest ocean, where they have plenty of prey. But then, because of these physiological changes, the fish find themselves unable to rise to higher levels to leave, and thus are never seen by humans.

“It’s a good choice to make, but it’s quite a commitment. It’s buying rather than renting,” said Dr. Linley of adapting to trench living.

The group has yet to publish a paper on these new findings, but they are working to document the purple snailfish specimen in greater detail. Photographs and CT scans of the body come first, as it is so fragile.

“We’re really taking our time, because we’ve only got one,” Dr. Linley said.

Earlier reporting on deep ocean researchThis Coral Must DieJune 25, 2018What Eats What: A Landlubber’s Guide to Deep Sea DiningDec. 19, 2017The Deep Seas Are Alive With LightAug. 21, 2017An Ocean Mystery in the TrillionsJune 29, 2015Read More

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