While we’ve come a long way in the past century in regards to ocean exploration, many people may not realize just how much of our ocean is still unexplored. While it certainly feels like we’ve seen a lot when it comes to the beauty and wonder of our ocean, more than 80% of the ocean remains to be seen by human eyes (or through underwater robots and groundbreaking technology, but you get the point). Every year, researchers are making discoveries, uncovering new fascinating phenomena and learning new things about the spectacular wildlife that call our ocean home. Get ready, because I’m about to walk you through just a few of the jaw-dropping oddities discovered and observed in the ocean world, as well as recent research and some theories scientists have about why these curiosities are the way they are in the first place.
There’s a fabulously pink manta ray swimming around the Great Barrier Reef.
Named “Inspector Clouseau” after the protagonist of the film Pink Panther, this stunning creature has only been seen a handful of times since it was first spotted in 2015 and is the only one of its kind ever recorded. The cause of its rosy tint is still being investigated, with suggested potential causes ranging from a diet rich in highly pigmented foods to stress reactions and even to something as simple as a genetic dermal mutation that affects the color of its skin.
There are some fish (and sharks) that can walk.
Well, sort of. Frogfish, a curious little species that are a member of the family Antennariidae (they’re a type of anglerfish), have little modified pectoral fins that resemble legs, which allow them to move along the seafloor in a way that appears very similar to “walking.” Similarly, some species of shark (known as “epaulette” sharks) have incredibly strong pelvic and pectoral fins that allow them to move along the ocean floor similarly.
Scientists think octopuses might be able to dream.
Studied at Alaska Pacific University, an octopus named Heidi earned her claim to fame on social media earlier this year when a PBS special featured her rapidly changing color while asleep. Recent studies suggest that cephalopods experience a dream-like state reminiscent of REM, the stage of sleep in which humans and some mammals and reptiles experience dreams. While it may exhibit differently in cephalopods than other species, it certainly is fascinating, and begs the question … what could Heidi be dreaming about?
There are restaurants at the bottom of the ocean—well, not for us, but deep-sea critters.
In 2019, NOAA’s Exploration Vehicle Nautilus caught a stunning dinner party on camera: countless deep-sea critters dining on the carcass of a deceased whale, which had fallen from the upper water columns upon death. While it’s certainly not something we see every day, the event illustrated just how much of a bonanza an event like a whale fall can be for the residents of our ocean’s deepest realms. Since food can be hard to come by in the deep sea, and many of such species can go without eating for long periods of time, it’s definitely a party when a pile of food weighing hundreds of thousands of pounds falls into their laps!
An algal phenomenon called “watermelon snow” causes patches of snow to turn—yep, you guessed it—bright red.
Earlier this year, scientists reported red-colored segments of snow on Galindez Island, located just off the coast of Antarctica’s northernmost peninsula. Caused by a species of ice-loving algae called Chlamydomonas nivalis, this natural spectacle is thanks to carotenoids within the algae. These carotenoids are pigments that turn the algae’s appearance bright red once “activated,” which is usually seen during warmer months but can occur during any time of year if the temperatures are right. Its resurgence during normally cooler months has caused scientists to flag it as an important consideration to be included in climate research modeling.
The ocean is home to countless fossils … a few of which are “living.”
Allow me to clarify: each animal hasn’t of course been around for millions of years, but some species are referred to as “living fossils” because their kind has thrived the passing of hundreds of millions of years while remaining mostly anatomically the same as they were when they first appeared. Horseshoe crabs are an excellent example: while these ancient arthropods are estimated to have been around for 450 million years, their overall appearance hasn’t changed much. They’ve adapted, of course, but have remained closer to their original form than can be said about many other species. Another excellent example is the nautilus, which is estimated to be more than 500 million years old. For some jaw-dropping context, the dinosaurs only went extinct about 65 million years ago, and the first dinosaurs to appear only waltzed into the picture around 247 million years ago.
There’s a tiny shark species that—we are not kidding—glows in the dark.
Initially discovered in 2010, the American pocket shark (Mollisquama mississippiensis) was reclassified in 2019, and is one of just two pocket sharks currently known to science. This pocket shark isn’t called a “pocket shark” without reason, either: the species averages an itsy bitsy 5 ½ inches long and uses bioluminescent secretions from tiny glands under its pectoral fins to draw in prey.
Bobtail squid are so good at camouflage that the United States military has studied it.
While they average in just under 2 ½ centimeters long, the capacity of these little cephalopods to transform their coloration for protection is massive. Thanks to its symbiotic relationship with bacteria, the Hawaiian bobtail squid (Euprymna scolopes) is so good at disguising itself with said bacteria’s naturally reflective properties that the United States Air Force studied it in aircraft camouflage developmental research. Wild stuff, right?