This Mysterious Deep-Sea Jellyfish Looks Like a Plastic Bag

Filmed with innovative low-light technology, new footage gives a better picture of the rarely seen creature.

Mysterious Deep-Sea Jellyfish Filmed in Rare Sighting

Roughly 50 years ago, the French explorer Jacques Cousteau was sniffing around in the deep ocean with the submarine DEEPSTAR 4000. Built in 1965, the vessel helped to identify life lurking thousands of feet below the ocean’s surface before it was retired in 1972. Among those species was a giant, tentacle-less jellyfish, which eventually came to be known as Deepstaria enigmatica.

As the name suggests, D. enigmatica is a mysterious specimen that hasn’t extensively been studied. The jelly resembles a large trash bag, with a thin, broad, delicate bell covered in a net of interconnected canals, and it lives about 3,000 feet deep in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the Indian and Southern oceans. (Related: “Secret Lives of Jellyfish: Robots, Genetics, and World Domination”)

The jelly’s large size and remote habitat make it elusive, but some incomplete specimens, photographs, and observations from submersible windows have given researchers a picture of the species. And now, thanks to new technology and a recently published paper, scientists are getting a better look at D. enigmatica.

Using an ultra-sensitive low-light camera encased in a thick glass sphere, David Gruber, a marine biologist and National Geographic Emerging Explorer, and his colleagues captured the jellyfish on camera. Their findings, including details about the innovative technology and what may be the first evidence of a D. enigmatica corpse, were published in the journal American Museum Novitates on May 11.

“Using the new technology that we have available, we could approach these animals almost in complete darkness,” says Gruber, who is also a Radcliffe Fellow at Harvard University. “In order to capture bioluminescence, you need a really sensitive camera.”

Tubeworms (red), an eelpout fish, and a crab jockey for space near a hydrothermal vent on the mid-Atlantic Ridge. (Learn about the weird animal community at the Pacific Ocean's deepest hydrothermal vent.)

Carbon dioxide bubbles out of the seafloor at the Champagne Vent in the Western Pacific Ocean. The wide range of chemicals that bubble out of hydrothermal vents fuel microbes that form the base of ecosystems unlike those anywhere else.

Microbial mats coat a coral reef in a bizarre overlap of habitats 623 feet (190 meters) down in the Western Pacific Ocean. Chemicals released by a hydrothermal vent power the microbes, while sunlight provides energy for the reef.

Superheated water laden with metals like iron, copper, and zinc sulfide builds up towering chimneys in an image taken in the Western Pacific Ocean's Mariana Arc region. These towers are about 30 feet (9 meters) tall.

White water, which looks like smoke, spews out of small sulfur chimneys in the Western Pacific Ocean. The area was named the Champagne Vent because carbon dioxide bubbles fizz out of the seafloor.

Tap images for captions

In the Dark

In November, Gruber, engineer Brennan Phillips from the University of Rhode Island, and their colleagues boarded an exploration vessel off Mexico’s San Benedicto Island and headed for the open ocean. With them, they brought a supersensitive Canon ME20F-SH camera encased in a 13-inch polished glass sphere, which would protect the recording equipment from the crushing pressure of the deep sea.

The researchers mounted the Canon contraption to the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Hercules, lowered the mechanism 3,195 below the surface of the water, and controlled it from their vantage point on the boat. (Related: “Top 10 Compact Cameras for Travelers”)

Considering the ocean covers more than 70 percent of the Earth and contains more than 99 percent of the world’s biosphere, the researchers didn’t seek out the hard-to-find D. enigmatica. Rather, the jelly came to them.

“This animal just drifted by the ROV Hercules. We didn’t collect this,” Gruber says. “It’s barely ever been seen because it’s so fragile and it just floats in the midwater.”

After first encountering the specimen, the researchers followed it with the low-light camera for nearly 10 minutes. With the contraption’s dimmable LEDs set to the lowest setting, they observed the jelly closing, which could be a technique to propel the tentacle-less animal upward, or to help it capture prey. The jelly bumped into the glass at one point, which allowed the researchers to get a close-up of the gastrovascular, or digestive, canals that cover its body.

“The only light that this jellyfish gets is lights from other bioluminescent animals,” Gruber says.

An Amur leopard named Usi from Nebraska's Omaha Zoo is captured in mid-prowl in this picture by National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore.

Harapan, a four-year-old male Sumatran rhinoceros at Florida's White Oak Conservation Center, appears to emerge from the shadows in this photograph.

Seemingly in awe, a six-week-old female western lowland gorilla has its picture taken at the Cincinnati Zoo.

The pygmy mouse is the only Australian mammal that lives in alpine environments.

The Philippine crocodile, pictured above, is a relatively small freshwater crocodile.

A Sumatran orangutan at the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas, seems to pose for a portrait.

The northern bald ibis (pictured, an individual at the Houston Zoo) was thought extinct until it was rediscovered in the Syrian desert near Palmyra in 2002.

This black-eyed tree frog belongs to a species that scientists predict will decline by more than 80 percent over the next ten years.

A Lord Howe Island stick insect, photographed at the Melbourne Zoo, seems to peer into the camera.

Sartore photographed this addax, or white antelope, at the Gladys Porter Zoo.

Tap images for captions

In addition to the live specimen, the researchers also filmed what’s likely the first instance of a D. enigmatica “jelly fall,” or dead jellyfish, in the ocean’s benthic area, which is about 2,950 feet below the surface. Gruber describes the jelly fall as a “monster packet of food” that creates a “hot spot of deep sea life.” Many small swimmers depend on these decomposing organisms for nutrients in the food-starved deep ocean. With this particular jelly fall, lithodid crabs and caridean shrimp flocked to the area to feast on the carcass.

Not Too Close for Comfort

One of the main considerations of the team’s research is to be noninvasive and delicate with wildlife, so as not to disrupt it in its natural state. By filming D. enigmatica with this low-light technology, the researchers cut down on interference and were able to observe the animals in as natural a state as possible.

“We’re missing a lot when we go down there [with other cameras], because we’re really noisy and really bright,” Gruber says. With the Canon, the researchers could explore using only a fraction of the light necessary to operate other submersibles.

“It’s almost like we’re diving with a little penlight on,” he says. Not only does this expedition provide clues about D. enigmatica, but the researchers will also be able to use this camera technology in the future to document other elusive species. 


Follow Us