Discovered in the Deep: Meet Casper the Ghostly Octopus

A white octopus sat on the sea floor, gently moving its short, thick arms and staring with bright eyes into the camera of a deep-diving robot.

It was in 2016, in the waters off Hawaii, at a depth of 4,290 meters (2.6 miles). No one had ever seen an octopus like this, and certainly not this deep. Based on his ghostly appearance, he was nicknamed Casper.

Until then, the only cephalopods filmed at these depths were the Dumbo octopuses, named after another cartoon character, which were seen swimming as deep as 6,957 meters, with elegant ear-like fins on either side of the head

The ocean is one of the last truly wild spaces in the world. It’s filled with fascinating species that sometimes seem to border on the absurd, from fish that peer through transparent heads to golden snails in iron armor. We know more about deep space than we do about the deep oceans, and science is only beginning to scratch the surface of the rich variety of life in the deep.

As mining companies push to industrialize the seabed and world leaders continue to debate how to protect the high seas, a new Guardian Seascape series will profile some of the weird, wonderful, majestic, ridiculous, stalwart and mind-blowing creatures recently discovered . They reveal how much there is still to learn about Earth’s lesser-known environment and how much there is to protect.

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The ocean is one of the last truly wild spaces in the world. It’s filled with fascinating species that sometimes seem to border on the absurd, from fish that peer through transparent heads to golden snails in iron armor. We know more about deep space than we do about the deep oceans, and science is only beginning to scratch the surface of the rich variety of life in the deep.

As mining companies push to industrialize the seabed and world leaders continue to debate how to protect the high seas, a new Guardian Seascape series will profile some of the weird, wonderful, majestic, ridiculous, stalwart and mind-blowing creatures recently discovered . They reveal how much there is still to learn about Earth’s lesser-known environment and how much there is to protect.

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Casper’s sighting was a surprising moment for Janet Voight, associate curator of invertebrate zoology at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. “This is totally new and different,” he says, recalling the discovery.

That first glimpse of Casper led to many tantalizing mysteries. Why is he so pale? Most other octopuses have colored chromatophores in their skin that change their appearance in an instant and act as camouflage to confuse predators.

Even in the deep sea, octopuses can be colorful, like purple, warty graneledone Some use a layer of dark skin pigments, apparently to hide bright, bioluminescent prey they grab in their arms and thus avoid alerting other predators. Voight guesses that Casper’s paleness may be down to a lack of pigments in his food.

Another puzzle is the short arms, although Casper isn’t the only one with limited reach. “The more shallow and tropical you are, the longer and thinner your arms are,” says Voight.

This trend toward shorter arms in deep octopuses has no definitive explanation. Voight thinks that instead of stretching to grab food, they developed an alternative tactic of turning their bodies so that their mouths, on the lower part of their bodies, are directly over the food.

Scientists have learned more about Casper by combing through five years of archived images collected in deep Pacific surveys. They saw dozens more like Casper lying on the seabed, of two different species.

Unusually, Caspers appear to lay eggs on tall sponges, rather than rocks.
Unusually, Caspers appear to lay eggs on tall sponges, rather than rocks. Photo: MBARI (Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute)

“They could be quite common,” says Voight. “It’s just an indicator of how little we know about what’s down there.”

For Voight, especially exciting were the Caspers with their arms wrapped in eggs stuck to tall sponges. He had previously theorized that octopuses that live on the sea floor need hard rocks to lay their eggs on. Further down, there could be less exposed rock, limiting how deep they can go.

“Casper showed that there are ways around this by finding a sponge stem,” he says. “Is this a breakthrough in the evolution of pop?”

The sponges themselves are attached to rock nodules that are scattered across swaths of abyssal plains and take millions of years to form.

If other deep-sea octopuses are present, female Caspers probably spend a lot of time guarding their eggs. An octopus of another species (Graneledone boreopacifica) was spotted off the coast of California, on a craggy bluff in the Monterey Canyon, brooding her only clutch in exactly the same spot for more than four years.

At the moment, Casper’s pale and mysterious octopuses have yet to be officially named, because everything we know about them comes from imagery; no one has been able to collect a specimen to study it in detail.

“With an octopus, you really need it in your hand,” says Voight.

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