A mile and a half (two and a half kilometers) underwater, a remote control submersible's camera has captured an eerie surprise: an alien-like, long-armed, and—strangest of all—"elbowed" Magnapinna squid.
In a brief video from the dive recently obtained by National Geographic News, one of the rarely seen squid loiters above the seafloor in the Gulf of Mexico on November 11, 2007.
The clip—from a Shell oil company ROV (remotely operated vehicle)—arrived after a long, circuitous trip through oil-industry in-boxes and other email accounts.
"Perdido ROV Visitor, What Is It?" the email's subject line read—Perdido being the name of a Shell-owned drilling site. Located about 200 miles (320 kilometers) off Houston, Texas, Perdido is one of the world's deepest oil and gas developments.
The video clip shows the screen of the ROV's guidance monitor framed with pulsing inputs of time and positioning data.
In a few seconds of jerky camerawork, the squid appears with its huge fins waving like elephant ears and its remarkable arms and tentacles trailing from elbow-like appendages.
Despite the squid's apparent unflappability on camera, Magnapinna, or "big fin," squid remain largely a mystery to science.
ROVs have filmed Magnapinna squid a dozen or so times in the Gulf and the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans.
The recent video marks the first sighting of a Magnapinna at an oil development, though experts don't think the squid's presence there has any special scientific significance.
But the video is evidence of how, as oil- and gas-industry ROVs dive deeper and stay down longer, they are yielding valuable footage of deep-sea animals.
Some marine biologists have even formed formal partnerships with oil companies, allowing scientists to share camera time on the corporate ROVs—though critics worry about possible conflicts of interest.
The Perdido squid may look like a science fiction movie monster, but it's no special effect, according to squid biologist Michael Vecchione of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), who is based at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.
In 1998 Vecchoine and University of Hawaii biologist Richard Young became the first to document a Magnapinna, based on juveniles of the Magnapinna pacifica species. M. pacifica was so unusual that the scientists had to create a new classification category to accommodate it: the family Magnapinnidae, which currently boasts four species.
In 2001 the pair released the first scientific report based on adult Magnapinna specimens, as seen via video. The study demonstrated that Magnapinna are common worldwide in the permanently dark zone of the ocean below about 4,000 feet (1,219 meters).
(See "'Weird' New Squid Species Discovered in Deep Sea" [December 20, 2001].)
In 2006 a single damaged specimen from the North Atlantic led to the naming of a second Magnapinna species, M. talismani. And in 2007 the scientists documented two more: M. atlantica and a species based on a specimen from the mid-Atlantic.
That fourth Magnapinna species remains nameless, because its arms were too badly damaged for a full study. "However, it was clearly different from the three known species," Vecchione said.
The Magnapinna species apparently have only slight physical differences, mainly related to tentacle and arm structure in juveniles.
The subtlety of those variations makes it impossible to identify which species is in the oil-rig video, given that at least two Magnapinna species—M. atlantica and M. pacifica—are known to inhabit the Gulf of Mexico, Vecchione said.
Based on analysis of videos not unlike the one captured at the Perdido site, scientists know that the adult Magnapinna observed to date range from 5 to 23 feet (1.5 to 7 meters) long, Vecchione said. By contrast, the largest known giant squidmeasured about 16 meters (52 feet) long.
And whereas giant squid and other cephalopods have eight short arms and two long tentacles, Magnapinna has ten indistinguishable appendages that all appear to be the same length.
"The most peculiar structure is that of the arms," said deep-sea biologist Bruce Robison of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California.
Referring to the way the tentacles hang down from elbow-like kinks, Robison said: "Judging from that structure, we think the animal feeds by dragging its arms and the ends of its tentacles along the seafloor as it drifts slowly above it."
The elbow-like angles allow the tentacles to spread out, perhaps preventing them from getting tangled.
"Imagine spreading the fingers of a hand and dragging the fingertips along the top of a table to grab bits of food," he added.
But NOAA's Vecchione suggests a feeding behavior that is more like trapping than hunting. He speculates that Magnapinna passively waits for prey to bump into the sticky appendages.
As oil companies and their ROVs spend more time in the bathypelagic zone, more discoveries are sure to follow, experts say.
Eager for hard-to-come-by deep-sea video and data, some biologists are formally aligning themselves with the companies.
The U.K.-based SERPENT (Scientific and Environmental ROV Partnership using Existing iNdustrial Technology) project, for example, matches oil companies with researchers "to make cutting-edge ROV technology and data more accessible to the world's science community," according to the project's Web site.
Despite such partnerships, Monterey Bay's Robison said, most sightings of the Magnapinna squid have come from research vessels, not oil companies. The November 2007 video, for the record, was captured without scientific involvement.
Some scientists, including Robison, are not entirely comfortable relying on corporations for new data.
Andrew Shepard, director of NOAA's Undersea Research Center, is excited about the potential for new ocean resources, but he does have concerns.
"Oil companies are there to develop hydrocarbons, not find new species," Shepard said.
"These discoveries may, in fact, have a negative impact on very expensive and valuable lease tracts if someone decides a rare species needs to be protected."
But given how expensive and time consuming ROV-based deep-sea research is, scientific cooperation with industry is crucial, SERPENT project oceanographer Mark Benfield said.
"There are relatively few research vessels and far fewer ROVs and manned submersibles capable of working down through [extremely deep regions of the ocean]," said Benfield, who teaches at Louisiana State University.
Research funds are getting scarcer, he added, and "with SERPENT we gain access to sophisticated ROVs for free.
"These systems are based on vessels or rigs that spend months to years at a single location. This allows us to build up a much more complete picture of life in the deep-sea than would be possible with [only] academic ships and deep-submergence vehicles."
NOAA's Vecchione said he has "gotten a lot of interesting observations from the SERPENT project and other petro sources."
But the oil-industry collaborations "should not get in the way of purely scientific exploration," Vecchione said. "We need to be careful about deep-sea conservation."