The Scariest Monsters of the Deep

Photograph by E. Widder/HBOI/Visuals Unlimited
Damien du Toit/Flickr Creative Commons
Photograph by Adrian Glover/ Natural History Museum
Photograph Courtesy of MBARI
Photo by Hungarian Snow
Photograph by Norbert Wu/Minden Pictures
Ed McNichol/Flickr

The Scariest Monsters of the Deep

A spook-tacular Halloween treat: Zombies, goblins, and ghoulish marine creatures galore.


By Brianna Elliott
Published: 10/31/2013

On Halloween we delight in getting a fright from zombies, goblins, and vampires—all the while knowing that they aren’t real. Yet if we were to descend deep beneath ocean’s surface, we’d discover that nature has produced some spook-tacular creatures of her own. Some have numerous jaws, the better to chop up their prey. Others attack their victims with acid. Many have ghoulish sexual appetites.

There are a couple of reasons we don’t need to worry about a run-in with these organisms. For one thing, we’d never survive the frigid waters hundreds to thousands of feet deep that they inhabit. The pressure would kill us, but, “The pressure isn't really a problem for the organisms that live there—they are mostly water and essentially incompressible,” says Will White, a marine biology professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. And though an extreme environment, it’s not a variable one. “In contrast to, say, rocky intertidal or coral reef habitats, these are very stable habitats with some of the most consistent conditions—temperature, salinity, oxygen, [lack of] light—of any ocean waters on the planet.”

Another reason not to worry is that, as ferocious as these creatures may appear, most are quite small. “There's not much food down there, and the deep sea is not a very productive habitat,” says White. “So, there is not enough energy to sustain a large-bodied predator.”

Here’s a sampling of the scariest-looking monsters that lurk in the deep.

Photograph by Adrian Glover/ Natural History Museum
Zombie Worm: The deep sea is haunted by its own version of a demented dentist—the zombie worm. These three-inch-long creeper-crawlers thrive in the graveyards of the abyssal zone, drilling into the bones of deceased whales. They lack a mouth, stomach, and anus, so how do they eat? They secrete an acid that dissolves the bone, which then releases fat and protein. Symbiotic bacteria living inside the worm digest these molecules. When it comes to reproduction, the creatures practice sexual parasitism. Microscopic males live inside the females’ bodies, sometimes in quantities of a hundred or more.

Ed McNichol/Flickr
Deep-sea Blob Sculpin: These sad-looking creatures look more like ghosts than fish, and were recently dubbed the “ugliest animal in the world.” Maybe so, but their looks are the key to their survival. “The gelatinous appearance everyone seems so critical of is a brilliant adaptation allowing this fish to be slightly less dense than water,” says Craig McClain, assistant director of science for the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, chief editor of Deep Sea News, and a professor at Duke University. “This slight positive buoyancy allows P. marcidus to hover over the seafloor without expending energy, a huge advantage in the food poor deep sea.” They feed on sea pens, mollusks, and crabs that float their way. Found around the Pacific Coast of Japan and California and around the Bearing Sea, and live up to 9,000 feet deep. The ghoulish globs do have some defenses—pointy spines on their gills that they use to ward off predators.

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