Nova Scotia·Photos

Atlantic Canada is home to weird and wonderful creatures of the deep

The ocean is full of weird and wonderful creatures. Here are a few that frequent Atlantic Canada that you may not know about.

Octopus that spends nearly 3 years incubating eggs, 400-year-old shark among interesting species

Torpedo ray tagged by Dal researchers

7 years ago
Duration 0:37
Technology used to unlock mysteries of rare species.

The ocean is full of weird and wonderful creatures. Here are a few that frequent Atlantic Canada that you may not know about. 

Masters of disguise

As if being highly intelligent masters of escape and disguise weren't enough to make this list, octopuses come in a variety of strange forms and colours. 

Octopuses are in the taxonomic class of cephalopods, a word that translates to "head-foot".

Most octopuses die shortly after incubating their egg clutch, except for a tea-cup sized octopus called Bathypolypus arcticus, which frequents waters off Nova Scotia.

This octopus was captured on camera during a 20-day exploration by Canadian and Spanish researchers off Canada's East Coast in 2010. (DFO)

"They're distinguished by having possibly one of the longest egg-incubation periods of almost any species," said Chris Harvey-Clark, a marine biologist at Halifax's Dalhousie University.

Once they lay their eggs, Bathypolypus guards them until they hatch, which could take nearly three years.

"[That's] exceptional for any species," said Harvey-Clark.

Little is known about the so-called dumbo octopus, a creature with ears like an elephant that has been spotted about 2,500 metres below the surface in the deep-water Sable Gully marine protected area off the coast of Nova Scotia. (Department of Fisheries and Oceans)

Cannibalistic 'true Canadian shark'

The Greenland shark eats its own kind, lives at depths of 4,000 metres and can grow to nearly seven metres in length.

Perhaps most interesting is the recent discovery that these giants of the deep may live 400 years or longer and only reach puberty around the age of 150.

This Greenland shark was caught as bycatch from research vessel Pamiut in southwest Greenland. (Julius Nielsen)

"They are the most enigmatic of the sharks in our water," said Boris Worm, a Dalhousie University ecologist.

"They are the oldest living vertebrate that we know of on our planet. To translate that, they are about five times as old as your grandmother and that's just stunning to me."

These beasts are occasionally captured as bycatch by Atlantic Canadian fishermen. 

"I call them the true Canadian shark because they are cold-loving and as far as we know they're only found in Arctic and adjacent waters," said Worm. 

Beautiful creature, ugly name 

A nudibranch, or sea slug, known as the sea butterfly swims in shallow waters beneath Arctic ice. (NOAA)

Although their name is not appealing, sea slugs or nudibranchs are some of the most beautiful creatures in the ocean. Harvey-Clark says there are 50 to 60 species found in waters off Atlantic Canada. 

Rare in Nova Scotia waters, the blue angel stores stinging nematocysts from the Portugeuse man o' war to protect it from predators. (Wikipedia)

Glaucus atlanticus, or blue angel, is an open-ocean species that prefers warmer climates but sometimes makes its way here off eddies on the Gulf Stream.

The nudibranch swims upside down, preying on the venomous jellyfish-like Portuguese man o' war. The Glaucus is not affected by the man o' war's venom and actually incorporates it into its own tissue as defence, giving predators, or unwitting humans, a nasty sting.

Mouth like alien worm from Star Wars

Leatherbacks have a mouth that resembles the sarlacc in the Great Pit of Carkoon. (Jon Augier/Museum Victoria & LucasFilm/Disney)

With a mouth resembling the sarlacc in the Great Pit of Carkoon (that mouth in the desert in Return of the Jedi), the gargantuan leatherback turtle is an obvious entry on this list. 

Leatherbacks have remained virtually unchanged since before the days of the dinosaurs, swimming the world's oceans for more than 90 million years. 

The world's largest reptile, leatherback turtles can reach more than two metres in length and weigh more than 900 kilograms. They're known to swim up to 12,000 kilometres a year and dive to depths of up to 1.2 kilometres.

Creature with glowing green eyes 

Lurking in the depths of the ocean is a creature with neon green eyes, a long pointy snout and ribbed fins resembling feathered wings. 

Longnose chimeras — and all other chimeras — are a group of cartilaginous fish that branched off from sharks nearly 400 million years ago, according to the California Academy of Sciences.

Jeff Hutchings, a fisheries scientist and professor at Dalhousie University, said in the 1990s a Dalhousie technician went out on a DFO research survey and caught a fish no one had seen before.

At that time, only four had been recorded being caught.

"They're deep-sea, very infrequent and they certainly come close to a sea-monster-ous like fish," said Hutchings.

Whale? Shark? What the heck is it?

The large, flat, peculiar-looking ocean sunfish can weigh as much as 1,000 kilograms and are the boniest fish in the world. (Per-Ola Norman/Wikipedia)

If you ever see a giant, strange-looking fish flopping around at the ocean's surface, there's a good chance you're looking at an ocean sunfish. 

The flat, peculiar-looking fish can weigh as much as 1,000 kilograms and are the largest bony fish in the world. They're also one of the most recently evolved fish.

"They probably produce the greatest number of eggs per female of any fish — like several hundred million at a time," said Hutchings.

They spend much of their life in the dark part of the ocean below 200 metres, but they are often seen basking at the surface where they are sometimes mistaken for sharks.

Male is a parasite, literally

Male angler fish are a tenth the size of the female and actually parasitize them, living their whole life attached to her. (https://marianuniversityscienceblog.wordpress.com/)

There are some creatures that lurk in the darkest depths of the ocean that use glowing, bioluminescent bacteria-filled lures to draw in prey. 

Angler fish are found in oceans around the world and a few species are found in Canadian waters. Most familiar to Nova Scotians is the monkfish sold in fish shops and grocery stores.

One of their weirdest features is the relationship between males and females. Males are a tenth the size of the female, living their whole life attached to her and feeding off her blood and fluids.

"Females, it turns out, have to have these little parasitic males otherwise they won't mature," Hutchings said.

1 shocking fish

Atlantic torpedo ray

6 years ago
Duration 0:42
The torpedo ray has powerful electric organs that can put out a shock of about 200 volts.

Imagine a fish that can reach five feet in diameter, with camouflage that makes it blend in with the sea floor and can release an electric charge of 600 volts — those are attributes that make torpedo rays unique. 

"The most interesting weird and wonderful creature we're playing with is the Atlantic torpedo ray," says Fred Whoriskey, executive director of the Ocean Tracking Network at Dalhousie University.

"It's really unique in that it has modified the muscles in its wings to become electric organs. Those electric organs are used to put out a massive electric discharge on the order of about 600 volts and it stuns its prey and it swallows them whole."

Imagine tagging a creature with the ability to deliver a shock of 600 volts. (Dalhousie Ocean Tracking Network)

Little is known about the torpedo ray, the only electric fish known in the North Atlantic Ocean. 

The rays are here during the summer and scientists have begun tagging them to understand more about them — as long as they don't short out the electronic tags. 

A gardening bath pouf 

The strange and fragile creatures put out a trail of slime as they slowly — extremely slowly — make their way across the seafloor. (DFO)

Where does a gardening, single-celled organism about the size of a grapefruit fit in the tree of life? That's a question scientists are struggling with. 

Little is known about xenophyophores, says Ellen Kenchington, a Department of Fisheries and Oceans researcher at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography who specializes in benthic ecology, which focuses on the lowest level of the water. 

A xenophyphore looks like a bath pouf and one scientific paper suggests they actually garden on the sea floor. 

'"They're just so cool," she said. 

The strange and fragile creatures put out a trail of slime as they slowly make their way across the sea floor. They then turn around and eat that slime trail and all the organic bits that have grown on it.

Kenchington says there are about 30,000 of them per kilometre in Sable Gully, off the coast of Nova Scotia, but because they fall apart if you try to bring them to the surface, they're only observed when remotely operated vehicles are sent down.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Seasick marine biologist, turned journalist. She lives in Halifax. In 2018 she helped lead a team of reporters and editors to win the RTDNA Ron Laidlaw Continuing Coverage Award for work on the Deep Trouble series. The series delved into the plight of the endangered North Atlantic Right Whale. She can be reached at cassandra.williams@cbc.ca, on Twitter @cassiehwilliams

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