Researchers aboard the research ship Nautilus were combing the sea floor off the California coast last week when they swept their camera across a startling sight some 900 metres below the surface: two prominent eyes staring right back at them.
The tiny, bright purple cephalopod with large “googly eyes,” as one of the observers on the video put it, soon had the researchers and crew of the vessel laughing uncontrollably and joking that its eyes looked “weird” and “fake.”
The creature that cracked up the researchers was the so-called stubby squid (Rossia pacifica), also known as the bobtail squid, a cephalopod native to the northern Pacific Ocean. While it may look like a Muppet, the stubby squid is real and, as far as deep-sea creatures go, not all that unusual.
“It’s not an uncommon species,” says Michael Vecchione, a cephalopod expert at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. “They get all the way from scuba-diving depths down into the deep sea. If that is all one species, then it’s pretty broadly distributed.”
Despite its name, the stubby squid is not a true squid, although it is a close relative. As for its wild eyes, Vecchione says the gigantic peepers are pretty common among animals of the deep.
“They are funny-looking eyes, but I’ve seen other species of this genus that had eyes that looked very similar,” he says. “People were actually asking whether those eyes were photoshopped in to make it look more like a cartoon or something. No, those are the real eyes. That’s what they look like.”
The Eyes Have It
According to Vecchione, large eyes probably come in handy deep in the ocean, where light is scarce.
“In the deep sea there’s not very much light. People tend to think that it’s completely dark down there, but there is light that’s produced by other organisms, so having big eyes lets you gather as much light as possible.”
And that probably helps the stubby squid find its next meal. The cephalopod’s preferred method of hunting is to bury itself in sediment with only its large eyes sticking out and wait for a small fish or unwitting crustacean to pass by.
“All cephalopods are predators. These bobtails, as far as we know, they tend to be ambush predators, so they’ll sit either on the bottom or even buried in the bottom and wait for something to come by that they can shoot their tentacles out and grab and pull back into their arms,” says Vecchione.
Large, complex eyes probably also help the stubby squid and its extended family avoid being eaten themselves.
“That is very typical of the whole group, the squids and octopods and cuttlefishes. All of them have well-developed eyes,” Vecchione says.
And as one crew member heard on the video points out, the animal remains so still that it looks almost more like a discarded children’s toy than a living thing.
Vecchione says that the cephalopod was likely frozen in fear of the enormous submersible looming in front of it, or else stunned by the bright lights being shined in its prominent peepers, like an underwater deer in headlights.
“My guess is it was probably frozen because of this big machine that was brightly lit up in front of it,” says Vecchione. “So it was trying not to be seen, basically.”