Newly Discovered Extreme Deepwater Fish Get Cotton-candy Names

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Purple and Blue snailfish newly discovered at 7500m in the Atacama Trench of the Pacific, with baited trap (bait has been eaten)
Purple and Blue snailfish newly discovered at 7500m in the Atacama Trench of the Pacific, with baited lure to attract lifeforms (bait has been eaten)Credit: Newcastle University
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Not knowing what lurks at the bottom of the seas has the upside of enabling wonderfully speculative horror movies. Perhaps that’s where the creativity ends, given the temporary names given to three previously unknown species of snailfish identified at a depth of 7,500 meters beneath the surface in the Pacific: Pink, Purple and Blue.

Purple, one of three new snailfish species discovered at 7500m in the Atacama Trench of the PacificCredit: Newcastle University

It is true that “the pink, the blue and the purple Atacama Snailfish” are only temporarily named thusly. At some point they will get proper Latin names.

Whatever they are called, they have now been discovered and even filmed deep in the Atacama Trench, a rift in the floor of the Pacific Ocean.

The exploration to the black depths of the Atacama encompassed a team of 40 scientists from 17 different nations. Among their discoveries are what they say seems to be three previously unknown species of snailfish, aka sea snails. Which are not snails, they’re fish.

The Atacama Trench is almost 6,000 kilometers long and more than 8,000 meters deep in some parts. It runs along the west coast of South America.

Scan of the snailfish skeletonCredit: Northwestern University

“Sea snails” are actually a vast family of predatory ray-finned fish. Somewhat like Hollywood’s version of ancient Roman soldiers, the snailfish have bony armor extending down their cheeks. Most live in shallow, temperate waters, but this one lives in total dark under bone-crushing pressure of about 750 atmospheres.

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Say “deep-sea fish” and one naturally thinks of the dramatic angler-fish, which have gaping maws, terrifying teeth and a special appendage dangling from their foreheads that is designed to lure fish which may contain bio-luminescent bacteria. Hideous by most standards, they usually look like the stuff of nightmares. Anglerfish can be frighteningly big, too, up to over a meter in length, but happily they don’t live where people can see them unaided.

Not our new finny friends. Pink, and also Purple and Blue, are bitty, practically see-through li’l things. The hardest elements in their small gelatinous bodies are teeth (we did say carnivorous) and the inner-ear bone, explains Dr. Thomas Linley of Newcastle University. Like their fellow in the black depths, though, they do have their nightmarish aspect.

Life teems at at 7500m in the Atacama Trench of the Pacific: Ray, snailfish and arthropodsCredit: Newcastle University

“Without the extreme pressure and cold to support their bodies they are extremely fragile and melt rapidly when brought to the surface,” Linley says.

Yes, melting in your hand does sound like a horror movie again.

“There are lots of invertebrate prey down there and the snailfish are the top predator, they seem to be quite active and look very well-fed,” he adds.

Well-fed? “Beyond the reach of other fish, they are free of competitors and predators,” the team elaborates.

Mysterious fish discovered in the Pacific at 7,500 meters depth

The fish were spotted and documented thanks to baited camera systems called “landers” designed at Newcastle University to explore the remote oceanic depths. The landers are dropped from ships and simply free-fall to the ocean floor (which can take hours), where they do monitoring and sampling tasks. Once the sampling is done, the researchers transmit an acoustic signal to a baited trap, which releases weights, and the lander rises to the surface.

As well as the snailfish, the team also filmed some astonishingly rare footage of long-legged isopods, known as Munnopsids, which are about the size of an adult hand. They look like spiders with tiny bodies and very, very, very long legs. It is not known if they melt if extracted from their environment.

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