A Few of The American Museum of Natural History’s Scariest Sea Creatures (and a Few of Our Own)

by Owen James Burke

The American Museum of Natural Historys Most Bizarre Sea Creatures LOW The American Museum of Natural Historys Most Bizarre Sea Creatures

(Image by Monkey Fist)

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, and a few of our own.

— BL


(Photos via Oceana)

Mitsukurina owstoni, The Goblin Shark

The goblin shark’s jaw can extend out past its snout so that its nail-like teeth can more easily pierce its prey. Goblin sharks are rarely spotted, poorly understood deep sea animal that fishermen haul up once every decade or so. But rest easy, shark fearing readers. These guys may grow to about 13 feet long, but they rarely make their way up above 300 feet, and are otherwise believed to be pretty sluggish beasts with short fins and fat, flabby bodies.


(Image via Treehugger)

Macrocheira kaempferi, The Japanese Spider Crab

The Japanese spider crab is one of the creepiest animals in the world because it’s probably the only one that could potentially crawl out of the sea, abduct your child, and return to the briny deep. It has the largest leg span of any arthropod (12’6″) and can weigh up to 40 pounds with a 16″ carapace, but worry not, and let your kids roam free to trick or treat; it lives in the waters off of Japan and has yet to cross the Pacific…yet.


(Photo: Neptune Canada / Flickr Creative Commons)

Osedax, Zombie Worms

Zombie worms, or bone worms, are a genus of deep sea polychaete which grow out of bones and feed on marrow. These animals were first discovered living in dead whale bones (and whatever else they’re lucky enough to receive along the sea floor, where they live at depths of up to 10,000 feet.  Wait, they get creepier: they have neither mouths nor stomachs, but digest fats from bones by secreting an acid from their skin. Still, yet: the considerably larger females are the only ones that feed on the bones — the males live inside the females. Brrr.


(Photo via The Inertia)

Pyrosoma, Pyrosomes

Here’s another worm for you that’s probably equally as harmless as it is creepy. Pyrosomes are free-floating tunicate made of a colony of thousands of zooids, which can be the size of your fingertip, or your whole body. Collectively, they can grow over 60 feet in length. One of these was just discovered with an entire penguin inside of it. Okay, they’re pretty creepy.

Named for the Greek words Pyro, meaning “fire,” and soma, “body,” we know very little about these rarely seen worm colonies. Found in the warm waters of the world, this one doesn’t always hide in the deep, and can occasionally be seen at the surface. If you happen upon one, it probably won’t chase you down, and many divers like to try to ride them, though you’d be well advised to at least steer clear of its mouth.


(Photo: Klaus Stiefel / Flickr Creative Commons)

Uranoscopus sulphureus, The Whitemargin Stargazer

The ghoulish whitemargin stargazer buries itself in the sand like a flounder and wears a fishing lure above its mouth, which bears the teeth of a monkfish. Ghost white in color so that it can camouflage, it would be hard to imagine a more perfect ambush predator.

Lernaeocera branchialis 640x480 The American Museum of Natural Historys Most Bizarre Sea Creatures

 (Photo via Wikipedia)

Lernaeocera branchialis, a copepod parasite whose head grows into and through a 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.


(Photo: MBARI)

Macropinna microstoma, The Barreleye

The barreleye, named for the cylindrical eyes it bears on its transparent head, is the Jack O’Lantern of the deep. According to National Geographic, this tiny 6-inch fish is not an alien, but I’m not so sure I’m so inclined to believe them just yet. 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.


(Photo via Animal Planet)

Cymothoa exigua, a marine isopod that tricks fish and takes their treats. It eats a fish’s tongue and then latches on and takes its place.

A parasitic crustacean of which nightmares should never be made. This innocent pill-bug-looking isopod enters a fish through the gills, draws blood with its claw from the fish’s tongue. This causes it to atrophy, which then leaves place for the parasite 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. It can also take whatever scraps pass it by, and in the case of a small fish, steal an entire meal.


(Photo: MBARI)

Vampyroteuthis infernalis, Vampire Squid

This one is obligatory for halloween. One of these years we’re going to convince Brian to dress up like one and send him trick or treating around Honolulu. 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, startling and confusing everything around it and giving the squid ample time for an escape.

But, I think the real vampire this year is this wolf fish:


(Photo via Oceana)

Macropinna microstoma, Wolf Fish

Believe it or not, these devilish-looking fangs are in more danger around us than we are around them. They happen to taste pretty good, I’m told, and are in danger of being overfished. These fish like cold, deep water (250-400 feet, ~30 degrees fahrenheit) and what’s more frightening than their smile is the anti-freeze they produce autonomously to keep their blood from freezing. Be very glad these hardy, deep-dwelling beats aren’t vengeful; they grow up to 5 feet long.

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. Check out their apps.

stiassny The American Museum of Natural Historys Most Bizarre Sea Creatures

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 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.

siddall The American Museum of Natural Historys Most Bizarre Sea CreaturesMark 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. 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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