The underwater “eye” that is unlocking ocean secrets

Marine biologist Edith Widder loves the ocean, however there is one factor she envies about her colleagues who research life on land.

On land, if scientists wish to observe animals of their pure habitat, undisturbed, they’ll arrange particular concealment spots, or “blinds,” that disguise their presence from their topics. Undisturbed, animals will reveal superb secrets: mating rituals, searching habits, or particular behaviors that assist them keep away from predators. But for a very long time, Widder couldn’t conceal herself sufficient to glean these sorts of particulars from underwater analysis topics.

“We’re just so obtrusive,” Widder says, when she describes the choices that are most available to a marine biologist, like observing sea creatures aboard a submarine. “When we go down there with our big, noisy thrusters and bright white lights.” She says the fish and different animals are disturbed by the noise and the vibrations, so even when they don’t swim away, they gained’t essentially act naturally. And so, Widder suspected that there have been numerous nice scientific insights and classes of pure historical past, all being left unlearned.

Studying fish in labs is additionally not an ideal answer. Over the course of her decades-long profession, when Widder captured animals from the deep ocean and introduced them into laboratory aquariums for research, the ocean animals would typically begin behaving weirdly. Animals that may usually swim round would simply float on the high of tanks and customarily act like they have been in a glass cage, hundreds of miles away from dwelling.

“It just leaves you with so many questions when you see an animal like this,” Widder says. “And how can we ever know these things?”

This was why Widder wished the prospect to look at ocean animals just like the gulper eel, or sixgill sharks, and even the extraordinarily elusive large squid, with out them noticing her presence.

“I don’t think people have any concept of how little we understand life on our own planet,” she says.

But so as to perceive that life higher — a minimum of within the ocean — she would want to create the equal of a blind for the ocean. And so, she did, by mimicking the superb diversifications of sea creatures she’d studied, and utilizing them to design a digicam she calls “The Eye in the Sea.” In her guide, Below the Edge of Darkness, and on the newest episode of Vox’s Unexplainable podcast, Widder remembers her quest to construct this underwater eye, and the sudden scientific treasures it has allowed her to witness.

It began many years in the past, with journeys down into the depths of the ocean, the place Widder encountered some very unusual fish.

An superb discovery that left Widder wanting extra

It was 1989. Widder had squeezed right into a Johnson Sea Link submersible. This was a deep-water car with a giant, clear sphere that researchers like Widder might sit in and observe ocean life whereas maneuvering robotic arms to drop samples into assortment buckets. At the time, it was one of many few submersibles out there for analysis into questions on life in the midst of the ocean, as a substitute of simply the seafloor, or the floor waters.

Widder and Phil Santos, the submersible’s pilot, have been nearing the tip of their dive. As she remembers, it was late within the day, they usually’d already been known as to return to the floor. “You really don’t want to mess with people’s dinner times,” she says. A late return “makes you very unpopular.”

But as they have been making ready to return up, Widder noticed one thing extraordinarily bizarre swimming out in entrance of them: a fish with a brilliant lengthy, skinny tail, an extended, racing-stripe-like strip operating down its facet, and an enormous, pelican-like mouth.

She acknowledged it as a gulper eel, a mysterious, deep-sea fish that’s really bizarre. Unlike different eels, it doesn’t have scales or pelvic fins or a swim bladder. It’s additionally exhausting to seek out.

“I had never seen [a live] one before and have never seen one since,” Widder says. “To see a live one is very, very rare.”

Excited, Widder began fidgeting with the controls on her digicam, hoping to seize the eel on movie. But when she regarded up once more, it was gone. And instead, there was a giant, brown balloon.

“It was just… what the hell,” she remembers. Then, earlier than her eyes, the balloon deflated, forming again into the form of an eel. She realized that the balloon was the eel — the fish had hyped up its personal jaw, stretching into the rounded form. Widder suspects they have been the primary folks to ever witness this habits.

“I didn’t know they could do that. I don’t know if anybody knew they could do that,” she mentioned to Santos, because the eel did the trick once more, this time whereas she was filming it.

And then, Santos bumped the car’s thrusters simply sufficient to slip the eel into one of many eight plexiglass cylinders used to carry samples on the submersible. Suddenly, they hadn’t simply filmed the uncommon eel. They had caught it.

Together, Santos and Widder lastly surfaced and introduced the gulper eel to their shipboard lab, together with some excited colleagues.

But this is the place the frustrations set in. On the one hand, this expertise had been an absolute triumph. Widder had an unprecedented probability to review a uncommon eel, alive. She was making cool discoveries about its habits.

But then again, she was left with countless questions: Why did the gulper eel flip right into a balloon? Why, as she additionally noticed whereas learning it, did it set free a blindingly brilliant bioluminescent glow? Were these defensive maneuvers? Why use one in some circumstances, and one other in others?

Widder says she had no great way of answering these questions, as a result of the gulper eel wasn’t going to behave usually underneath lab circumstances, and he or she couldn’t know the way the presence of the sub modified its habits.

But the expertise impressed her to construct a software that would let her reply these questions — not only for gulper eels, for many ocean animals.

Building an ocean blind

The expertise with the eel, and others prefer it, caught in Widder’s thoughts. By the mid-Nineteen Nineties, she’d determined that she wished to invent a software that would let her see ocean creatures like gulper eels up shut with no need to place them in tanks or scare them with submersibles.

She thought that an undersea digicam could be the perfect software for the job, however there was a giant impediment she needed to overcome: the darkness of the deep ocean. In the previous, when scientists despatched down cameras, they’d additionally despatched down brilliant, white lights to gentle up the ocean depths. But Widder thought these lights have been scaring away all of the animals, or a minimum of protecting them from performing naturally. They weren’t all that a lot much less intrusive than the submarine thrusters.

Widder knew that she would nonetheless want gentle if she wished her digicam to have the ability to movie. But she thought she may be capable of remedy the issue of scaring animals away by drawing inspiration from a particular predator she’d studied referred to as a stoplight loosejaw, or “stoplight fish.”

Like many deep-sea creatures, the stoplight fish is mildly horrifying at first look. It has an extended, darkish physique, pale eyes, and a jaw filled with spiky enamel. But it will get its title from the weird patches slightly below its eye that glow with crimson and inexperienced bioluminescence.

The crimson bioluminescence, particularly, is uncommon. Most ocean animals that produce bioluminescence make blue gentle.

To perceive why, a fast rationalization of sunshine in water: Red gentle can not journey very far in ocean water. That’s as a result of it has lengthy wavelengths, and winds up getting absorbed rapidly by the water. That’s why a crimson swimsuit can seem black underwater.

Blue gentle, against this, has brief wavelengths, so it travels a lot farther. It is sensible, then, that deep ocean creatures that are producing gentle to draw mates, or lure in prey, or flash out communications, use blue gentle to take action.

But as a result of a lot of the bioluminescence within the deep ocean is blue gentle, Widder says, most ocean animals have additionally advanced to see blue gentle, so the stoplight fish’s crimson gentle is invisible to them.

“The cool thing about the stoplight fish is that it uses its bioluminescence like a sniper scope,” Widder says. “It makes red light and it can see red light that other fish can’t see. So it can sneak up on them, illuminate them clearly, and see them without being seen.” In this case, the fish’s “scope” is extraordinarily short-range, however it’s nonetheless helpful to have an invisible flashlight once you’re making an attempt to light up your dinner with out alarming it.

Widder realized that if she might imitate the stoplight fish, then she would have a manner of lighting up the ocean with out disturbing lots of its residents. But it wasn’t so simple as simply flashing a crimson gentle bulb underneath the ocean. She needed to reconstruct the particular manner the fish generated the crimson gentle, masking the sunshine supply with a filter that might pressure out all the opposite colours, so that no unintended hints of blue or inexperienced gentle snuck by way of to alert the fish.

She then paired her digicam with a blue gentle lure: a number of blue LED lights in an epoxy mould that would gentle up like an “electronic jellyfish,” attracting predators to her digicam so she might movie them.

She gave the entire contraption a reputation: The Eye within the Sea. And in 2004, she lastly had the prospect to try it out for the primary time.

The Eye within the Sea opens up

The first take a look at was within the Gulf of Mexico, the place Widder left the Eye within the Sea on the seafloor in a single day. She wished to start out by simply watching the seafloor, lit up by crimson gentle, to see how creatures may react. And then, just a few hours in, she deliberate to activate the blue “electronic jellyfish” lure, to see if it attracted any predators.

When they obtained the Eye within the Sea again on deck the following day, Widder went again to the lab, alone, to evaluate the footage.

To the untrained eye, it wasn’t notably thrilling. The digicam was black and white, and, in Widder’s phrases, “pretty crummy.” But she didn’t care, as a result of to her, what she was seeing was extraordinary: the fish weren’t afraid of her crimson gentle in any respect. They have been swimming straight towards and round her digicam, letting themselves be filmed.

“I was, for the very first time, seeing the world as it actually is instead of how it appears when we go down and disturb it. And I was ecstatic,” she remembers. “I had my window into the deep sea.”

Then, she obtained to the a part of the footage the place the digital jellyfish turned on and began flashing tiny lights to draw predators.

A minute and 26 seconds later, a squid swam on display screen that Widder describes as “so new to science, it could not even be placed in any known scientific family. Not just genus, but family.” Most squid have lengthy, skinny tentacles, Widder says, however this one had brief, muscular ones.

“I screamed so loud when that squid appeared that they heard me up on the bridge,” she says. “And every time after that, when we recovered the Eye in the Sea, I had a crowd around me.”

An entire new ocean view

Widder finally obtained cash from the National Science Foundation to enhance her digicam, and use it as a window into the ocean world.

By 2012, Widder had additionally developed a brand new model of the Eye within the Sea known as “The Medusa,” which she was capable of take a look at off the coast of Japan. The aim of the expedition was to seize footage of the enormous squid, an extremely elusive animal that can develop as giant as a four-story constructing, however had till that level, solely ever been studied from useless specimens.

Widder thought that, like all of the fish earlier than it, the squid had been scared away by the brilliant white lights researchers had despatched down with movie tools up to now. She hoped the Medusa’s crimson lights and delicate blue lure could be extra profitable. And they have been.

“They were actually filming at the moment that I was reviewing the video and saw it and just completely lost my mind,” she remembers. Since then, she’s filmed the squid a number of instances.

She’s additionally continued to find new behaviors — behaviors that she will witness in context, as a substitute of making an attempt to grasp them in a lab, as she needed to together with her captured gulper eel.

She’s notably happy with what she’s discovered about sixgill sharks, which reside close to the ocean flooring and scavenge for meals. With the Eye within the Sea, Widder was capable of seize footage of the sharks going vertical within the water to suck up muck from the ocean flooring and run it by way of their gills. She believes that they’re doing this so as to sieve tiny bits of meals out of that muck.

“It goes a long way to explaining how these giants manage to survive in such a food-poor environment,” she says. “But how are we ever going to know these things unless we can observe them like that?”

Of course, numerous questions stay. Widder has nonetheless by no means absolutely answered her questions on gulper eels, for instance, as a result of she hasn’t seen them once more with the Eye, and he or she’s turned up many different questions on ocean life over the course of her profession. But now, a minimum of, she has a software she will use to reply these questions. And she’s excited to maintain exploring. Before her profession ends, she hopes to reply vital questions on marine snow — the fecal pellets and plankton our bodies that fall from the floor and nourish all of the ocean life under.

“For me, the appeal of science is the notion of actually seeing something or learning something that nobody else has ever seen or known,” she says.

And by that commonplace, Widder has had an extremely interesting profession.

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