More than 40 years ago, deep sea explorers found on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean vast fields of pearl-like balls of the metal manganese. These lumps of the essential element slowly accrete at vasts depths such as 13,000 feet below the ocean surface. In the Pacific, there are regions where the manganese spheres form large areas that some have sought to mine. In 2015, researchers found manganese nodules as large as bowling balls.
The United Nations approved the exploitation of the manganese fields in 2014. While the lumps of metal are useless for any structural purpose on its own, manganese can be added to steel to form extremely tough alloys that can be used for firearms and applications where strength and flexibility are key, as in bicycles.
At the depths at which the manganese spheres are found, there were some observers who believed that there would be little life to speak of. However, new research shows that nothing could be further than the truth. In a news release, Angelika Brandt -- a scientist at the University of Hamburg -- stated, “At this station, very few organisms were found in the nets which captured the manganese nodules.” She added, “It is quite possible that living creatures find the immediate vicinity of the nodules quite inhospitable.” It was her team that recently found a significantly large manganese field.
German and American scientists led by the Helmholtz Center for Polar and Marine Research observed found the pale octopods living among the manganese nodes. Some have likened the tiny octopod to “Casper the Friendly Ghost”: a cartoon character of the 1950s and 60s. “The video footage indicates that the animals have cleaned the seabed around the nodules,” said evolutionary ecologist Henk-Jan Hoving in a statement. “It probably looks like that because the animals have been filmed using their arms to dig into the sediment around the nodules,” likely in search of food.
The Pacific octopods also displayed a particular egg-laying behavior in that they cling the stalks of dead sea sponges, which in turn were anchored to manganese nodes. Suspended above the muddy sea bottom, the brooding female octopods, therefore, had a stable place to guard their clutches of eggs. “The brooding behavior of the octopods we observed suggests that, like the sponges, they may also be susceptible to habitat loss following the removal of nodule fields and crusts by commercial exploitation,” the scientists concluded in their paper. The biologists worry that should miners harvest the manganese nodes, the ghostlike octopods will have no place to lay eggs.
The journal Current Biology indicates that video surveys conducted between 2011 and 2016, off the Hawaiian Archipelago and in the Peru Basin to the south of the Galápagos Islands, found several living things. Among them were ghost octopods, which are also called deep-sea incirrate octopods. These octopods were only recently announced, having been discovered in March of this year. “This animal was particularly unusual because it lacked the pigment cells, called chromatophores, typical of most cephalopods, and it did not seem very muscular,” wrote Michael Vecchione of the NOAA when the mobile mollusc was found. Vecchione said that the ghostlike octopod is “almost certainly” a species unknown to science and may even belong to a new genus.
A similar octopus -- Graneledone boreopacifica -- has been observed spending spent four and a half years brooding her eggs on a ledge near the bottom of Monterey Canyon off the California shore about 4,600 feet (1,400 meters) below the ocean surface. Scientists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) noted that this deep-sea octopus has achieved a record for brooding unknown for any other living thing. During the time of obsevation, female octopus cleaned her eggs and warded off predators. According to MBARI, "This amazing feat represents an evolutionary balancing act between the benefits to the young octopuses of having plenty of time to develop within their eggs, and their mother's ability to survive for years with little or no food."