Sunday 14 August 2011

Enypniastes, A Deep Sea Swimming Sea Cucumber

Image: Larry Madin / AP
Dear, oh dear. Some people just have no shame. Look at this exhibitionist, flaunting his or her self for all the world to see. It leaves absolutely nothing to the imagination. Nothing! I wonder if it's offended that I STILL don't know if it's a him or a her?

What we have here is one of the weirdest Sea Cucumbers the deep sea has to offer. It's a member of the genus Enypniastes, which is comprised of a couple Deep Sea Swimming Sea Cucumbers.

One bunch of researchers who spotted it named it “The Headless Chicken Fish.” Ha! Works for me! Although we have a habit of calling just about everything that swims a "fish" of some sort. And starfish don't even swim. This animal is really, really not a fish.

It is of course, an echinoderm, a relative of starfish, and it reaches about 30 cm (1ft) in length. In case you're wondering, that's a mouth. Surrounding the mouth are the tentacles used to grab mud from the ocean floor to plunge into its gob.

The path this mud will then take is unusually apparent. There isn't much in there other than a straight-forward, round-the-bend gut. But, CALAMITY of CALAMITIES! Where is the all important, multi-purpose anus?! "Sea Cucumber Anus!" the people cry. "We want Sea Cucumber Anus!"

Image via Wikimedia
Phew! Thank goodness for that!

I guess I should make absolutely clear that I don't actually 100% know that the little dark area there is the "EXIT", but it's definitely the other side of the Swimming Sea Cucumber and it looks from those guts like that's where they're going. I mean, it's so rare to clearly see an animal's guts, you may as well use it when you can, right?

Also, if you're a tad bewildered by all this anus talk, please check out the Sea Cucumber post before you judge me too harshly.


Video: NOAA via kzelnio

These odd fellows certainly can swim. They do so very slowly by flapping that vampiric cape of theirs. It's slow going, but it all looks rather tranquil and graceful. Looking closely, it appears that as the cape strikes the rest of the body, their flesh wobbles like so much flab. I presume they have soft bodies to deal with the immense, deep sea pressures. Regardless, this is probably the most attractive any Sea Cucumber is ever gonna get!

Image: SERPENT Project
Sometimes it all goes wrong. This is the sight that earned it the Headless Chicken Fish name. I really can't blame those researchers. It feels like I'm watching someone playing a "Kill All The Aliens" computer game.

Images: SERPENT Project

These remarkable Sea Cucumbers have been found in a whole host of locales, and it's thought that they may have a worldwide distribution. Of course, it won't affect you much either way since they live far, far away from dry land.

Apparently, they live in depths between 500 and 5,000 metres (1,640-16,400 ft), and can swim up to 1,000m (3,280 ft) above the ocean floor. Wow! Those other Sea Cucumbers must be pretty jealous! Or maybe ugly jealous.

The actual reason for all this determined elevation, this journeying like no Sea Cucumber has journeyed before, seems to be for finding new feeding grounds as well as avoiding predators. So... it's back to the mud, glorious mud!

Image: SERPENT Project
It's then that the oral tentacles come into play, indiscriminately hauling muck into its mouth. "Hey", say the other Sea Cucumbers, "you're just one of the boys, after all!" Unless they get teased for that ruff around their neck. Those tentacles look rather fancy, too, with all those frilly bits. It probably helps them grab more mud, but still...

In any case, if it all gets too much they can of course just up and leave. But there's something else they can do. Something reassuringly disgusting. Something totally Sea Cucumber.

It happens when they're threatened. When it's a case of "live or die trying". They bioluminesce when touched. If it's a light touch, just a small part lights up, though this can slowly spread across the whole animal. If it gets touched too much the whole thing will quickly light up, revealing not only its own position, but also the position of its assailant to any predators who may be in the area.

I guess the Swimming Sea Cucumber has its tentacles crossed for that one. Perhaps the attacker will itself be attacked. Maybe it'll just run away.

But it goes on.

Ocean Content

For one, the biolumenescent particles are sticky, so predators are lit up in the gloom for all to see, whether the Sea Cucumber gets away or not. But the most ridiculous thing is that while other Sea Cucumbers sacrifice internal organs to escape predation, the Swimming Sea Cucumber has a similar "on again off again" relationship with its own skin.

That's right. When push comes to shove and our Sea Cucumber has simply had E-nough, it releases it's sticky, sparkling skin into the water and shuffles off. Its hated enemy now has this gruesome sheathe either distracting it, or sticking to its face and beckoning all sorts of other deep sea meanies with the promise of something tasty or at the very least eye-catching.

Meanwhile, our heroic Sea Cucumber is once more cloaked in darkness and free to recover.

You have to respect that kind of gutsy defence (I can't believe I didn't even think of calling the "internal organs to the face" defence gutsy. Oh well!). Sure, it's utterly disgusting and it's not what you would want for your children, but there's something really amazing about it, you have to agree. There's nothing like a Sea Cucumber to expand your understanding of life and its possibilities!




Anonymous said...

Fantastic post. I absolutely love the way you write. :-)

Joseph JG said...

:D Thank you very much!

TexWisGirl said...

i opened the post, saw that first pic and said "oh, that's just wrong!" thanks for the amusing post!

Joseph JG said...

Haha! You're very welcome.

Emily said...

It's disgusting and beautiful at the same time, like so much else that lives in the sea.

Joseph JG said...

I definitely agree with you there! There's a lot of elegance down there, but it's all so alien compared to what we're used to.

Crunchy said...

That first picture looks like something that fell out of a proper marine organism!

Joseph JG said...

Hahaha! I didn't think of that. I'm not sure I wanted to...

shoelow said...

Actual text messages:

Partner: Holy crap. Have you see the news?

Me: Which news? "Rarely seen 'headless chicken monster' — actually a sea cucumber — spotted in Southern Ocean"

Partner: U.S. withdraws from nucular arms treaty with Russia.

Partner: This is idiocy.

Me: Yeah, everything is.


I am grateful for nature's limitless wonder, especially when I Google a new-to-me-monstrosity and end up here.

"But there's something else they can do. Something reassuringly disgusting. Something totally Sea Cucumber."

Reassuringly disgusting is just what I need.