A new animal with 200 legs was just discovered, and it's sucking up deep-sea trash

The gulf of Alaska, with snow-topped mountains in the background.

This week, a team of marine biologists released findings of a new sea creature slowly crawling its way across the deep ocean of the Gulf of Alaska. 

The researchers — Francisco A Solís Marín, Andrea A Caballero Ochoa, Carlos A Conejeros-Vargas — are all professors at the Institute of Ocean Sciences and Limnology in Mexico, and have devoted their lives to marine exploration. 

Their work, published in the Biodiversity Data Journal on June 26, describes a new type of deep-sea cucumber, a long, squishy animal with “pale pink violet” coloring and zig-zagging rows of 214 tube-like feet. 

The “new species of Synallactes from the Northeast Pacific” is also known as the McDaniel sea cucumber. 

Conejeros-Vargas and his team named the new animal after Neil McDaniel, a Canadian naturalist who specializes in the study of sponges, corals, anemones — and of course, sea cucumbers. 

Like other wild sea cucumbers, the McDaniel sea cucumber roams the deep seafloor looking for a bite to eat. 

They can be found at sea depths ranging from 70 feet to 1,400 feet — and they use their hundreds of feet to move and grab “bottom sediments with its peltate tentacles.” 

According to Arnold Rakaj, a marine biologist at the University of Rome, sea cucumbers subsist on a steady diet of “fish waste, algae, and other organic matter” peppered throughout the sandy floor of the sea. 

In recent years, researchers have begun to realize just how helpful sea cucumbers are when it comes to ocean health. They’ve even been called the “janitors of the sea.” 

2 McDaniel sea cucumbers: pink, tube-like sea creatures, near a sea urchin underwater
Synallactes mcdanieli "the McDaniel sea cucumber" at Battery Point, near Haines Alaska, USA. Image by Neil McDaniel via the Biodiversity Data Journal.

“Sea cucumbers have a very important role, they’re literally the underwater vacuum cleaners,” biologist Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg told Underwater Earth, as he took a deep ocean dive himself. 

Hoegh-Guldberg pointed out how sea cucumbers filter and clean the seafloor as they move, recycling nutrients into sand that’s cleaner going out than it is going in. 

“They get food at the same time as [they’re] keeping the sandy surfaces clean,” Hoegh-Guldberg said. 

One of the by-products of the sea cucumber’s sparkly clean digestion is an increase in calcium carbonate (CaCO3), a compound that keeps corals alive and thriving. 

Professor Maria Byrne, the director of One Tree Island Research Station at the Great Barrier Reef, said sea cucumbers counter “the negative effects of ocean acidification.” 

“In a healthy reef, dissolution of calcium carbonate sediment by sea cucumbers and other bioeroders appears to be an important component of the natural calcium carbonate turnover,” Byrne explained to the University of Sydney

Sea cucumbers have been on the decline due to overfishing and ocean pollution, but scientists hope to boost conservation efforts by spreading the word about the key role they play in their underwater ecosystems. 

Fortunately, the discovery of this new species of sea cucumber hopefully signals that the tide is turning in the right direction for them — and their ocean neighbors. 

“Sea cucumbers provide an extra level of insurance against the things that are causing coral decline,” marine ecologist Cody Clements told NPR this past spring

“Doesn't mean it's gonna fix everything, but we want to give them as much of a fighting chance as we can.”

Header image via Nicholas D. / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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