Underappreciated Marine Life

2021-05-04

 |  Biodiversity/Conservation

Marine life holds a lot of beauty, even at great depths. The different abilities, colours and shapes of marine life make up the wonders of the oceans. You may expect the most marvelous oceanic creatures to inhabit mostly tropical locations, but these wonders can also be found even in the deepest parts of the oceans. Deep-sea creatures are often perceived to be dangerous or hideous, and they tend to get overlooked because of their aesthetics. However, they hide some fascinating secrets and abilities that might surprise you. All marine life is essential to ocean ecosystems, and they should all be appreciated equally. Here are 10 marine creatures that often go underappreciated. 

BlobFish

In 2013, the blobfish (Psychrolutes marcidus) was voted the ugliest animal by the Ugly Animal Prevention Society. However, looks can be deceiving. The blobfish has some unique characteristics about him. Like a jellyfish, the blobfish does not have a skeleton or muscles, giving him his distinctive name. If you are in search of this marvelous creature, you would have to dive down into the depths of the ocean off the coast of Australia, between 330 – 4000 ft. They consist of a jelly-like body, so they can survive depths where the pressure reaches 120 times the surface pressure. Instead of using a swim bladder to help stabilize in the water, the blobfish uses the pressure from the surrounding water. Otherwise, the extreme pressure from the depth would cause the swim bladders to collapse. The blobfish hovers over the ocean floor but, without a swim bladder they do have trouble controlling their buoyancy. Low predator rates at these depths mean that they tend to have a long lifespan however, due to an increase in bottom trawling they are facing the danger of extinction from destruction and removal from habitat

Even as a bottom feeder, blobfish play an essential part in managing the growth of other populations. They help to collect and clean up an extensive amount of plant matter that falls to the bottom of the oceans. Without their assistance, overgrowth would likely occur.

Giant Larvaceans 

Giant larvaceans (Bathochordaeus) are tadpole-like creatures that grow 4 inches in length. Don’t let the small size fool you. They can create a bubble of mucus up to 3 ft around them. Often referred to as their house, the mucus consists of two layers, an outer and an inner. The outer collects large particles of food while the inner one brings smaller particles to its mouth.  

Not only food collectors, the mucus layers also help filter the water. One alone can filter up to 500 Olympic swimming pools per hour, which is an impressive amount for such a small creature. They have recently been recognized as small heroes of climate change. When their houses get clogged with food particles, the giant larvaceans are forced to abandon their houses. With the release of their houses, these creatures drag carbon and microplastics down to ocean floors with them. Sinking to the sea floor, the houses are often snacked on by sea cucumbers. 

Seagrass

Seagrass is a vital part of the ocean ecosystem, although it is often overlooked and grouped with seaweed. As there are many different types of seagrass, they fall under the Zosteraceae family. The main difference is that seaweed is algae while seagrass is a plant. Seagrass initially originated from the drylands but over the years has spread and adapted to underwater climates. 

They generally prefer a depth of fewer than 10ft, but some have been observed to grow to 35ft long. Known to be “ecological engineers”, seagrass protects the shorelines by slowing down currents, filtering out chemicals, oxygenating the water, and pulling carbon dioxide down to the seafloor. This is a magnificent achievement for a plant that only covers 0.1% of the ocean floor and is responsible for 18% of carbon sequestration. Seagrass also helps to provide resting spots for fish larvae, and their little oxygen bubbles create noise that attracts fish to safety. However, 7% of seagrass is disappearing each year, threatening the species that rely on it for shelter and food. 

Anglerfish

The anglerfish (Lophiiformes) is a carnivorous fish that is approximately the size of a teacup (8- 40 inches); however, there are some as long as 3.3 ft. Known mainly for their angry-looking faces, they are important predators of the deep. Found along the seafloor of the Atlantic and Antarctic Ocean, anglerfish hover, scouring for their next meal with their sharp teeth. The dorsal spine pops out of the female anglerfish above their mouths and acts like a fishing pole. The light on the end of the dorsal spine will flash and move about acting like a baited hook to lure in the prey. The males can be seen latching on to the females and infuse their organs together to mate. Sometimes the females have 6 males on them at once. Usually, the males do not detach from the females and feed off them while continuing to fertilize their eggs. 

If the anglerfish disappeared, their prey of small shrimp-like fish would boom, causing an imbalance in the food web. Currently, the biggest threat they face is overfishing. While they are not targeted by fishermen at such depths, they can be picked up by bottom trawlers. 

Octopus

The octopus (Octopoda)  is a unique mollusk because they can have different personalities. Owing to their sense of curiosity, some of them have even engaged with divers. Octopi don’t have bones, allowing them to slip into small areas to avoid predators or to stalk their own prey. Another interesting ability is their camouflage. They can change their skin and texture to help them blend into their surroundings of corals and sand.  

Octopi are part of the Cephalopoda class which is known to be important to ecosystems because of their intelligence. They are great at problem-solving and use these skills to escape difficult situations and to build a shelter in the ocean when needed. Whilst octopi have been seen to have some resiliency, they are also affected by overfishing and climate change. Thankfully regulations in catch size have caused some populations to rebound. When it comes to climate change, ocean acidification weakens their prey’s shells causing a shortage in available food. If their food runs out, they will likely be next.

Vampire Squid

The vampire squid (Vampyroteuthis infernalis), has an intimidating exterior, but it isn’t as harmful as you might think. Although its name includes the term “squid,” it’s actually a cross between an octopus and a squid, forming its own order called Vampyromorphida. Named after the reddish tone in its skin, the vampire squid has 8 arms that are connected by a web-like material.  Instead of catching prey, it uses the sticky cells of its tentacles to catch “marine snow,” which consists of particles of organic matter floating in the ocean. 

The vampire squid sprays a colorless bioluminescent ink to confuse its predators by creating a distracting twinkling effect. A second defense mechanism is that they can turn inside out to scare off their predators. Just like a vampire, it thrives in the dark depths of the ocean. The vampire squid remains a mystery; there is still a lot unknown about it and potential threats to its existence.

Titicaca water frog

Titicaca water frogs (Telmatobius culeus) are unique as they have loose and baggy skin that helps them to absorb a higher amount of oxygen. This frog is more commonly known as the scrotum frog, owing its nickname to the appearance of its skin. As an “entirely aquatic frog,” the baggy skin is essential for its survival. It lives at high altitudes around Lake Titicaca on the border of Peru and Bolivia. The population of the Titicaca water frogs has been steadily declining, and they have been put on the endangered species list. The reason they have been put on this list is because of overconsumption from humans, destruction of their tadpoles from trout, and habitat destruction. Many nature institutions are currently launching projects in hops to protect and preserve the remaining frogs. 

These frogs are known as an “ indicator species,” which means that they help scientists ascertain the health of the ecosystem and the other species in the area too. Their decline in population is a threat to this process too because it lowers the accuracy of results.  

Comb Jellies 

Comb Jellies (Ctenophora)are similar to jellyfish, with a few differences. While they both have two cell layers, the comb jellies have “plates of giant fused cilia” commonly referred to as their combs. These combs act like little oars helping them glide through the water. Light scattering can cause a rainbow to appear inside the combs from cilia moving about. One pair of tentacles are used as a fishing pole to lure in prey. Tiny branches are often seen attached to the tentacle with sticky cells. Instead of venom, they release a sticky glue to capture their prey. Unlike their jellyfish friends, comb jellies do not sting. Comb jellies can be found in various oceans, but they tend to stick to the warmer ones. 

All over the world, jellyfish blooms are occurring more frequently. Nutrient runoff is never good for the oceans because it can create dead zones. Jellies, however, can survive in those low oxygen environments, and because the nutrients cause phytoplankton to grow at a rapid rate, the jellies have an abundance of food. Climate change is no threat to the jellies. The warmer water could benefit them by allowing their embryos and larvae to develop faster. They seem to thrive in difficult situations.

Christmas Tree Worm

The Christmas tree worm (Spirobranchus giganteus) gets its name from its cone-shaped appearance. The cone consists of two crowns that have radioles on each of them. Radioles are hairs that come out from the spine and are used for hunting and respiration. These worms can be found in corals because it creates protection from prey.  Researchers have also discovered that they help protect the corals from bleaching or algal smothering. When diving near corals, they can be easily spotted by their variety of bright colors and unique shapes. So keep an eye out next time you are around corals, and you might get a glimpse of these beautiful worms. 

Leafy Sea Dragon

The Leafy Sea Dragon (Phycodurus eques) is an exceptional fish that lives only in Australia. The leaf-shaped appendages not only give the sea dragon its name but are essential for camouflage among the seaweed. However, to swim it uses two very tiny transparent fins. They use their snout to feast throughout the day on tiny crustaceans, commonly mysids or sea lice along the seafloor. A main threat to the leafy sea dragon is that unfortunately many divers take them out of their natural habitats and use them as pets. In the 1900s the Australian government even issued protection on the species. When diving, try to never leave a trace and just enjoy all the beauty that the marine world can offer. Along with pollution and habitat loss, the leafy sea dragon has sadly made it onto the near threatened list. 

Marine life is facing dangerous threats from both man and nature. Increased fertilizer runoff, overfishing, dredging, and sea temperatures are all reasons why marine life is suffering. Climate change has played a big role in not only affecting the marine life that lives near the surface but even the ones in the deepest parts. It’s important to take into consideration how all life interacts with each other and why we should make an effort to protect all of it. Simple actions, such as switching to reusables or opting for more environmentally friendly products, can lead to big changes when it comes to the environment. Being a good environmental steward above and below the waters is essential today because the changes seen in our surrounding ecosystems might not be able to be undone.