Scientists find strange ‘gummy squirrel’ in deep water

At one end of the biological spectrum are the charismatic megafauna, those “flagship species” that inspire the devotion of conservationists and the making of cute, cuddly stuffed toys sold in zoo gift shops. On the other hand, there are creatures so homey or baffling that they inspire a different kind of awe.

It’s easy to guess to what extreme scientists at London’s Natural History Museum (NHM) were working when they used a remotely operated vehicle to explore the edge of an abyss more than 16,000 feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean. As detailed in an article published July 18 in the scientific journal ZooKeys, the deep-sea expedition uncovered a mother lode of strange organisms previously unknown or poorly studied by science, including a stretchy, banana-shaped sea cucumber called a squirrel. rubbery and a sea sponge that resembles a tulip.

The evolution of the creatures in the harsh conditions of the deep ocean, where they survive despite crushing pressure, lack of light, and scarcity of nutrients, led to strange adaptations that remained remarkably constant for eons.

“One thing that always strikes me is that a lot of these life forms that we see haven’t changed much over the course of millions of years, which is crazy to think. [about]Guadalupe Bribiesca-Contreras, a biologist at the NHM and lead author of “Benthic Megafauna of the Western Clarion-Clipperton Zone, Pacific Ocean,” told “A lot of these species we’ve seen as fossils, and they look exactly the same now.”

The gummy squirrel, so named because it supposedly resembles a squirrel-like gummy bear, has a sail-shaped appendage on its back and several rows of tube feet on the bottom and sides of its 2-foot-long body .

The ability to observe these rare creatures in their natural habitat, rather than in the fossil collections of natural history museums, was one reason for the expedition, which brought back specimens of 55 creatures, most never before collected by The science. Nearly 40 may turn out to be newly discovered species.

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Scientists also hope to better understand the barely explored area’s biodiversity as interest in deep-sea mining grows. The Clarion-Clipperton Zone, a 2.3 million square mile area between Mexico and Hawaii, features a mixed topography of seamounts, valleys, hills, and fracture zones that creates habitat for a wide variety of marine life. It is also considered a promising target for mineral extraction.

The researchers call for more studies to help inform management plans to protect the area. “The little information we have about this environment and the species that live there makes it very difficult to know how damaging mining can be,” said Bribiesca-Contreras.