Faceless fish aren’t the only absurd creatures emerging from Australia’s Eastern Abyss

Also featured: a fish that’s mostly face.
Faceless fish

Ahh the two-butted fish... Asher Flatt/CSIRO

“Faceless fish” is just a nicer way of saying “a fish with two butts.” Let’s call a spade, a spade: this gelatinous blob looks like a reverse aquatic CatDog. It’s the pinnacle of absurd creatures that get dragged out of the ocean depths seemingly every time we dredge the bottoms for new and unusual sea life. Even chief scientist Tim O’Hara told (admitted to?) The Guardian that “It looks like two rear-ends on a fish, really.” Amen, Tim.

O’Hara is on an expedition right now in Australia’s Eastern Abyss, where he and his fellow researchers are surveying for deep sea animals. They’re gazing into the abyss—and boy is the abyss gazing back. They set out in mid-May and have already uncovered an almost alarming array of creatures straight out of a Lovecraft story. O’Hara thinks about a third of them are new species and Popular Science can confirm that nearly all of them are ridiculous.

The Investigator mission is traveling roughly parallel to the Australian coastline, periodically dipping down and unearthing (or un-ocean-ing?) a veritable grab bag of animals. Or, as Merrick Ekins, a researcher on board hailing from the Queensland Museum, so eloquently put it: “There were thousands of brittle stars and seastars, a penis worm (Priapulida) and lots of purple people eaters (an affectionate term for a type of holothuroid, or sea cucumber) that made up the bulk of the catch. We also had one hundred of the same type of anemone, which, when fixed in ethanol, looked like a toilet roll.”

Creatures that live in the abyss (yes, that’s a legit scientific term) tend to look bizarre because they’re unlike most of the animals we’re used to seeing in the ocean. The fish and crustaceans that live near the surface are relatively new species, at least as far as evolution is concerned. Abyssal creatures are more ancient. Most of the things that live below 13,000 feet, which is the definition of the abyssal zone, have ancestors much earlier in the evolutionary tree. They look prehistoric because they basically are.

Just look at these things.

Sea spider
This sea spider can probably swim better than you can. Robert Zugaro

This is a sea spider, but come on—really it’s a bunch of tubes connected together, right? Right. Sea spiders breathe through their shell-like casing by just passively exchanging gases, and they digest food inside each cell rather than having a whole organ dedicated to digestion. They circulate their blood by moving their legs around, which they do using single-celled muscles. These things barely qualify as animals, they’re so simple, but we’ll give them a pass because they’ve been around for 425 million years, making them some of the oldest surviving arthropods.

If you’re less of a spider person and more of a worm person, don’t worry! There are worms, too.

Opheliid worm
A five-millimetre-long opheliid worm Maggie Georgieva

Polychaete worms are related to earthworms and leeches, only these are much cuter.

Syllid worm
A two-millimetre-long syllid worm Maggie Georgieva

This thing reproduces by budding, which would be like if you produced offspring by sprouting a child that slowly grew out of the side of your neck. Adorable, huh?

Polynoid worm
A two-millimeter-long grubby polynoid worm (“grubby” here being an actual scientific term, not a judgement) Maggie Georgieva

And this little guy may look festive, but those spines are sharp. Also, it can shoot its jaws out from its body to attack prey. So…there’s that.

Carnivorous sponges
Left to right: Cladorhiza, Abyssocladia, and a ‘sponge on a rope’ (which is sadly not the scientific name, but rather a nickname) Karen Gowlett-Holmes

These may look like worms, but they’re actually sponges. Carnivorous sponges. Carnivorous sponges with actual glass spines that act like Velcro to trap prey so their cells can digest it slowly. True, their prey are mostly single-celled, but that doesn’t make it any less upsetting.

A puffed-up coffinfish Asher Flatt

Now for something slightly cuter: this silly coffinfish. It’s all puffed up because it’s defending itself from predators, which for a coffinfish consists of inflating its body with water so that it’s harder to swallow. Impressive. It’s a little less cute when you see it deflated:

Deflated coffinfish
A deflated coffinfish, both physically and emotionally Alastair Graham, CSIRO Australian National Fish Collection

This fish seems to be mostly face, and to make things even more ridiculous it uses those tiny fins to “walk” along the seafloor. Mostly though it just sits and waits for prey to wander by, much like its relative the anglerfish.

Two different images of a dragonfish, showing how its bioluminescence works. Jerome Mallefet

On the less-cute list: dragonfish. Unbelievably this is the least disturbing picture of dragonfish, which has tiny flecks of light that mimic the light from stars above. Deep sea creatures that migrate up to the surface to feed at night mistake the spots and head towards the dragonfish and their deaths. The red dragonfish has an even more clever hunting mechanism: it illuminates its surroundings with red light. Why red? Because the red wavelengths of sunlight don’t make it down to the abyss, most of its inhabitants don’t even have the ability to see red light, so they literally can’t see the red dragonfish coming.

Tripod fish
See its dinky little eyes? Because it can’t. CSIRO Australian National Fish Collection

This tripod fish couldn’t see a dragonfish coming anyway, because its eyes basically don’t work at all. It doesn’t need to see because it hunts by sitting still and waiting. It’s called a tripod fish because it has long spines that it uses to rest on the seafloor, where it stays still with its gross little mouth wide open, hoping some tiny creatures will coming sailing in on one of the currents.

Rock crab
Neolithodes-cf-bronwynae, a rock crab Asher Flatt

And lest we focus too much on fish, here’s a funky-looking crustacean. The rock crab, along with its fellow decapod crustaceans, don’t necessarily live at abyssal depths. Some come up with the catch from shallower seas, though plenty are deep water specialists. They all still live far down enough, and far enough out from the continental shelf, that they’re unlike most of the crustaceans you see in the grocery store.

Squat lobster
Munidopsis antonii, a squat lobster (not to be confused with a ROCK LOBSTAH) Asher Flatt

Case in point: this white squat lobster, which looks like someone cut the bottom half of a normal lobster and painted it white. Like most of these deep sea creatures, it’s almost cute and yet somehow vaguely unsettling.

Just be glad we didn’t show you a penis worm.