The American Museum of Natural History’s Most Bizarre Sea Creatures

by Owen James Burke


I grew up in New York’s American Museum of Natural History, spending a good amount of time staring up at the great belly of the Blue Whale in Milstein Hall of Ocean Life. I figured they’d have some opinions about weird ocean creatures, and I had the fortune and opportunity to talk to Doctor Mark Siddall, Curator and Professor of Invertebrate Zoology and Doctor Melanie Stiassny, Curator of Milstein Hall and Professor who specializes in Vertebrate Zoology and Ichthyology.

Here are some of the weirdest ocean creatures they could think of.

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1. Macropinna microstoma

Or “barreleye”, for the cylindrical eyes it bears on its transparent head.  You might think the eyes are the two ovals right above the mouth, but those are in fact the nostrils.  The eyes are situated inside the cranium and designed as they are for improved light sensitivity in the dark.


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2.Swima bombiviridis, Bomb-Throwing Worm (recently discovered)

A strong swimmer, this bottom-dweller has balloons attached to itself.  As soon it senses that a predator is cluing in, the balloon is released and the worm darts the opposite way.


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3.Vampyroteuthis infernalis, Vampire Squid

Most deep-sea cephalopods don’t have ink sacks, but the vampire squid has made a radical adaptation.  When threatened, it releases a bioluminescent mucus out of its arms, which may last up to 10 minutes, giving the squid ample time for an escape.


4.Hippocampus satomiae, Pigmy Seahorse

This is the smallest and probably cutest known seahorse on the face of the earth, with a standard length of 13.8mm (0.54 inches) and an approximate height of just 11.5mm (0.45 inches).


5. Macrocheira kaempferi, The Japanese Spider Crab

Lives in the waters off of Japan and has the largest leg span of any arthropod (12’6″), weighing up to 40 pounds with a 16″ carapace.



6. Alvinella pompejana (Pompeii Worm, species of deep-sea bristle worms)

Discovered in the Galapagos in the 1980’s by French marine biologists, these guys live in tubes near hydrothermal vents.  They are about 5 inches long and gray with red gills.  Inside the tube, their back end rests in temperatures as high as 176 degrees Fahrenheit, while the water temperature out around its nose remains at around 70.  Scientists believe that a bacteria that feeds off of a mucus secreted from its back forms a symbiotic relationship with the pompeii worm, acting like a heat-resistant fleece.


7. Odontosyllis bermudensis (Fire Worms)

In Bermuda, 3 days after every full moon, exactly 57 minutes after sunset, the females swim to the ocean’s surface and emit a green bioluminescent liquid, which attracts the males.  Both sexes are painful upon skin contact.


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8. Nudibranchia (Nudibranch, meaning “Naked Gills”)

Nudibranches, which steal the stinging cells of their prey, live in all depths and ranges, but do best in warm shallows.  There are over 3,000 different species and they can be anywhere from 3/4″ to 2′ long, often with a vibrant color display.  Some have stinging cells, others are much more simple.  Their eyes are tiny, and probably can’t discern much more than light and dark.


9. Bonellia viridis (The Green Spoon Worm)

The male of the species become parasitic when it settles onto a female.  The female is usually 15 cm long with green pigment.  The male is only up to 3 mm long, lacks pigment and is subsequently hardly ever seen.  The green pigment comes from a chemical called bonellin contained in the proboscis (up to 10 times its body size), which is highly toxic and can kill small animals, even though it mostly feeds on detritus.


10. Cymothoa exigua (a marine isopod that eats a fish’s tongue and then replaces it with itself)

A parasitic crustacean that enters through the gills, draws blood with its claw from the fish’s tongue causing it to atrophy, which then leaves place for it to attach to the muscle and replace the tongue.  With mucus, blood, and leftovers from its host, Cymothoa exigua has several dining options.  Surprisingly, the fish does not seem to mind, so it seems.



11. Lernaeocera branchialis (copepod parasite’s head grows into and through the fish host’s aorta)

A parasite of North Atlantic marine fish (also called the cod worm).  It is one of the largest copepods too, ranging from 2-3 mm as a juvenile to 40 mm as an adult.  They enter the fish with a filament, become sessile to suck blood for a while, the male passes sperm to the female, and they part from the host.  Cod worms are a big threat to the fishing industry, ruining many a catch of cod, lumpfish and flounder.


A special thanks to Drs. Melanie Stiassny and Mark Siddall of the American Museum of Natural History for sharing their time and knowledge with us. If you’ve got iPhones or iPads, check out their apps.

Melanie Stiassny

Herbert R. and Evelyn Axelrod Research Curator and Professor

Vertebrate Zoology, Ichthyology

Dr. Stiassny’s research focuses on freshwater biodiversity documentation and systematic ichthyology in the Old World tropics, particularly that of Africa and Madagascar. Current research and fieldwork is located in the world’s second largest river basin, the Congo River, in particular the diverse systems of the lower Congo region in western central Africa. In collaboration with an international team of research scientists, government agencies, and international NGO’s her research seeks to develop a synthesis of systematics, biogeography, population biology, bioinformatics and remotely sensed hydrological data to elucidate the evolutionary dynamics underpinning the high diversity of fishes in the lower Congo River, and as an aid in conservation planning throughout the Congo basin. Dr. Stiassny serves as advisor to numerous international scientific and conservation organizations such at the World Resources Institute, the IUCN, USAID, DIVERSITAS, and the International Foundation for Science. She is a member of the National Council of the World Wildlife Fund, the Advisory Council of Conservation International’s Center for Applied Biodiversity Science, and the Advisory Board of National Geographic Society’s Conservation Trust.

Mark Siddall

Curator and Professor

Invertebrate Zoology

Dr. Siddall’s research focuses on the evolution of leeches and their blood-feeding behavior, as well as on protozoan parasitology in general. Dr. Siddall analyzes the evolutionary patterns of both blood-feeding and non-blood-feeding leeches to determine how they have managed to circumvent the blood-clotting mechanisms of their hosts. Knowledge gained from this research may be used one day to develop anti-coagulants and tumor inhibitors in humans. He also studies the evolutionary relationships of various protozoan groups – including some that threaten the oyster populations along the Atlantic Coast, and others that cause malaria and giardiasis. Currently, Dr. Siddall and colleagues are completing a project that establishes the origins of relationships among bird, lizard, human, and primate malarias. Another aspect of his work assesses the genetic diversity of leeches in wild populations decimated by centuries of over-exploitation, to determine their species’ level of endangerment.

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