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Mystery Squid Helps Prove Ocean Research

March 2, 2005

It took only a minute for scientists to discover a new deep-sea species with an experimental infrared camera built in Southern California and light-emitting artificial lure.

Now, the National Science Foundation has agreed to spend $500,000 to refine the concept developed by the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce.

A large, 6-foot squid of a type never before photographed attacked the bait, a bioluminescent electronic “jellyfish,” about 60 seconds after it was turned on in August off the Louisiana coast during Operation Deep Scope.

The Eye-in-the-Sea video system, which can sit on the ocean bottom for up to 24 hours, and the lure were used for the first time during the 10-day, $210,000 Deep Scope expedition into the Gulf of Mexico that set off from Panama City in the Florida Panhandle.

“This was phenomenal proof of concept,” expedition co-leader Edith Widder said Monday. “In fact, it apparently has proven the concept because now I finally have funding from the National Science Foundation that is going to allow me to do this in a more advanced manner.”

Widder, a senior scientist at Harbor Branch, said the two-year grant will be used to develop Eye-in-the-Sea so it can be connected to a mooring 3,000 feet deep in California’s Monterey Bay.

The mooring would provide electrical power, eliminating the need for batteries, and allow the camera to send a continuous stream of video ashore for months at a time.

The original camera was built as a student project at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif., for $35,000 and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute paid for the batteries.

“I got some money from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration to put it in a bottle and to build a tripod for it,” Widder said. “It’s kind of been a stone soup, put together with little bits and pieces of money.”

NOAA also funded the Deep Scope expedition. Another one is planned for this summer in the gulf to again photograph and perhaps capture the mystery squid and other rare or newly discovered species.

Scientists think Eye-in-the Sea may be a better tool for such missions than noisy and obtrusive mini-submarines or remote underwater vehicles that scare many creatures away. The camera also uses red light scientists believe is invisible to sea animals.

The identity of the mystery squid, bigger than calamari but smaller than the fabled giant squid, remains a puzzle.

Cephalopod biologist Michael Vecchione of the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., wrote in an e-mail to Widder that he was unable to identify it after viewing the seven-second video and consulting with other experts. It has body and tentacle characteristics different from any known squids, Widder said.

“The thing to appreciate is something this large to be totally unknown is phenomenal and just such an obvious indication of how little we understand about what’s in our oceans,” she said.

The electronic jellyfish is another new touch. It mimics light given off by natural bioluminescent jellyfish when they are being attacked, a characteristic scientists call a “burglar alarm” similar to fear screams in birds or monkeys.

“That scream occurs when an animal is caught in the clutches of a predator,” Widder said. “Your only hope for escape may be to attract something bigger and nastier. It may come and attack what’s attacking you.”

On the Net:

Operation Deep Scope: http://www.at-sea.org/missions/deepscope




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