A mesmerizing deep-sea dancer by the name of Enypniastes eximia is enjoying a moment in the limelight after being filmed in the Southern Ocean off East Antarctica for what officials describe as the first time in that region. The footage of the sea cucumber, which is colloquially referred to as the “headless chicken monster,” comes courtesy of new underwater camera technology being used by researchers to aid in marine conservation efforts.
Video of the holothuroid was shared Sunday by the Australian Antarctic Division, which is part of Australia’s Department of the Environment and Energy. According to the division, the Enypniastes eximia had previously only been filmed in the Gulf of Mexico.
“For me what is remarkable about this discovery is that we had no idea that this organism would be found in the Southern Ocean. All the previous specimens we could find records of are from further north than where we recorded it at Heard Island,” Australian Antarctic Division Program Leader Dirk Welsford told Gizmodo by email. “It highlights how little we know about the deep ocean, particularly down south.”
This remarkable little creature—one of hundreds of known species of sea cucumber—spends most of its time buoying along the seafloor and using its “modified tube-feet” to feed on surface sediments, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). They can swim if they want to, and use fin-like structures to escape predators or lift off the ocean floor. Sea cucumbers are an important part of the marine ecosystem—they’re sometimes referred to as the vacuum cleaners of the sea—but some are on the brink of extinction as the result of overfishing.
Welsford told Gizmodo the other cool thing about the footage his team captured is that the technology they used is not that different from that of the compact digital cameras or mobile phones that most people are familiar with.
“Until recently, gear that could survive the depths where the Headless Chicken Monster lives required specialized technicians to operate, and sometimes specialized vessels to launch from,” he said. “However we have managed to design a camera that is strong enough to go to 3000m and be run by crew on fishing vessels, so we have the potential to deploy cameras and collect data from a much wider range of vessels and places.”
Originally developed by the Australian Antarctic Division for commercial use in long-line fishing, the underwater camera technology that captured the marine invertebrate is being used by the division to collect data for the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), an international commission that focuses on conserving Antarctic marine life. Australia is one of the commission’s 25 members.
“Some of the footage we are getting back from the cameras is breathtaking, including species we have never seen in this part of the world,” Welsford said in a statement. “Most importantly, the cameras are providing important information about areas of sea floor that can withstand this type of fishing, and sensitive areas that should be avoided.”
Welsford added the exceptionally durable underwater camera technology is a “really simple and practical solution which is directly contributing to improving sustainable fishing practices.” The data collected by the division will be presented at the annual CCAMLR meeting in Hobart, Tasmania that begins Monday and will continue through November 2.
Gillian Slocum, Australia’s CCAMLR Commissioner, noted in a statement the importance of protecting the Southern Ocean’s diverse marine life, “including commercially sought-after species, the harvesting of which must be carefully managed for future generations.”
Updated 10/22/18, 11:00 a.m. ET: Added comment from Dirk Welsford.