Dec 07, 2016 I Brett Tingley

Scientists Solve Century-Old Marine Biology Mystery

In 1899, ecologist and professor Carl Chun of Leipzig University discovered a strange blob-like sea creature while conducting an expedition in the Atlantic and Indian oceans. Chun named the sea blob Bathochordaeus charon and described the creature as roughly walnut-sized with a wide tail measuring three inches in length. However, decades went by without a single other specimen being caught or observed in the wild. After a similar species, Bathochordaeus stygius,  was found in 1937, biologists believed that Chun’s descriptions might have been flawed and that he had merely misrepresented specimens of B. stygius. Consequently, research on the odd sea creature stopped.

Bathochordaeus charon

Now, this lingering mystery of marine biology might have been solved thanks to the discovery of specimens of B. charon found off of the coasts of Oregon and California. Marine researchers from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) came across the diminutive blobs while conducting surveys with remotely-operated submersibles. Rob Sherlock, a scientist at the MBARI and lead author of this research, says that the discovery of B. charon was a shock after remaining elusive for over a century:

Since the vehicle was recovered some tens of minutes later, the animal was alive, in fantastic shape, and we preserved it right away in order to send it to the Smithsonian. We had no idea, until we looked more closely at the specimen, that we had actually found B. charon, the species first described over a hundred years ago. It felt like Chun had finally been vindicated after years of doubt.

B. charon belongs to a class of sea creatures known as larvaceans, which are tiny translucent blobs that filter plankton and other microorganisms out of sea water. B. charon is named after Charon, the ferryman who ushers the recently deceased across the river Styx in Greek mythology, a fitting name given that the blob is responsible for filtering the tiny decomposed bits of deceased sea life out of the ocean.

Bathochordaeus charon can grow up to three inches in diameter.

Studying these tiny-yet-vital organisms is important for our understanding of how carbon cycles throughout bodies of water, cluing researchers in on marine health and biological diversity.

Brett Tingley

Brett Tingley is a writer and musician living in the ancient Appalachian mountains.

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