By Scott A. Rowan
Ghosts surprise. That’s what they do.
So it only makes sense that the surprise scientists experienced days ago should result in a new species named after the cartoon character Casper the Friendly Ghost.
On February 27, officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration took the Okeanos Explorer for her first mission of 2016 into the waters northeast of Necker Island (Mokumanamana) and were pleasantly surprised to apparently make history on their first mission of the year. While seeking out rock and sediment samples at 14,074 feet (4,290, m), scientists were stunned to see a cephalopod that experts believe has never been previously recorded.
If the findings hold up to more thorough research over the coming months, NOAA’s discovery would be a record-setting depth for any incirrate octopods. Octopi that live deep in the ocean are separated into two categories: cirrate or incirrate. Cirrate octopods posses fingerlike cirri near their suckers along with fins on the sides of their bodies, which is why they are often referred to as “dumbo” octopods. Cirrate are known to live beyond 16,000 feet (5,000 m), while their close cousin incirrate octopods were never previously known to live deeper than 13,000 feet (4,000 m). (To remember the difference, think of the word cilia – another fingerlike structure widely found in the animal kingdom – when discussing cirri and the differences between the two groups should never be confusing.)
“The octopod imaged in detail on this first dive was a member of the second group, the incirrates,” Michael Vecchione explained in NOAA’s press release about the finding. “This animal was particularly unusual because it lacked the pigment cells, called chromatophores, typical of most cephalopods, and it did not seem very muscular. This resulted in a ghostlike appearance, leading to a comment on social media that it should be called Casper, like the friendly cartoon ghost. It is almost certainly an undescribed species and may not belong to any described genus.”
Casper has indeed become popular pretty quickly. Within days of NOAA’s announcement the world has already named the newly-discovered species “Casper” in news reports around the world. NOAA officials are still researching to learn if this recording was a first. Regardless of what they find, the success of Casper bodes well for the future of the Okeanos Explorer.