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A ‘headless chicken monster’ sighting shows just how little we know about the ocean off Antarctica

A sea cucumber that scientists call a “headless chicken monster” was caught on video for the first time in the Southern Ocean near Antarctica in October. (Video: Antarctic Division Australia via Storyful)

Now is perhaps as a good a moment as any to dispel the notion that everything that swims, flits or plods beneath the waves of the world’s oceans is a magnificent masterpiece of Mother Nature that will one day be rendered in expert detail by the people at Pixar.

For people who see the deep through “Finding Nemo”-colored glasses, the evidence to the contrary is mounting. There was the 50-foot decaying creature that washed up on an Indonesian island, so decomposed that people couldn’t identify what, exactly, they were taking selfies with.

There was the 300-toothed snake-headed shark that outlived its prehistoric contemporaries, providing 300 reasons to just say nope to the ocean. Last year, as The Washington Post’s Lindsey Bever reported, Hurricane Harvey deposited “a mysterious sea creature with fangs and no face” on a Texas beach. And then there was this bloated monstrosity, snapped by a pair of fishermen who probably still wake up in the middle of the night screaming.

For those who still believe that most things in the ocean are cute, if not cuddly, there is Enypniastes eximia, an ocean-bottom-dwelling sea cucumber that does a close approximation of swimming in the Southern Ocean off eastern Antarctica, according to the Australian Antarctic Division. A recent sighting by Australian scientists marked the first time this particular sea creature has been seen in the Southern Ocean.

If Enypniastes eximia is too much of a mouthful, the creeped-out masses have given the sea cucumber another, more fitting name: “the headless chicken monster.”

That’s because this sea cucumber, as captured by deep-sea cameras, looks like what would happen if an oven-ready chicken dinner decided to make a sudden dash for freedom.

(Full disclosure: E. eximia has also been dubbed “the Spanish Dancer” by well-intentioned taxonomists with apparently little knowledge of Spain or dancing.)

The sea cucumber in question feasts on organic material in the sediment of the ocean floor, “walking” along the bottom and using its tentacles to grab food. Because the animal is mostly transparent, it’s possible to see the food working its way through its intestines.

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Researchers captured the footage with a specially built camera attached to lines used to capture deep-sea fish in dark regions nearly two miles beneath the surface of the ocean.

“We needed something that could be thrown from the side of a boat and would continue operating reliably under extreme pressure in the pitch black for long periods of time,” said Australian Antarctic Division Program leader Dirk Welsford. “Some of the footage we are getting back from the cameras is breathtaking, including species we have never seen in this part of the world.”

Welsford’s words hint at what officials hope the sea cucumber becomes: a gelatinous spokesmonster for a campaign to protect parts of the Southern Ocean from the nets and lines of deep-sea fishermen.

Before the most recent video emerged, there had been no reported sightings of the headless chicken monster outside the Gulf of Mexico, according to CNN. If this part of the ocean is one of the few places where this invertebrate lives, the argument goes, maybe it’s a part worth preserving.

The area off eastern Antarctica serves as a foraging ground for penguins and is hospitable to cold-water corals. But it is also teeming with fish coveted by Russia and China, CNN reported. An international commission that oversees that section of the ocean can’t come to a consensus on fishing rights.

Australia’s appointee to that commission, Gillian Slocum, said in a news release that her country is trying to build support for a conservation zone in parts of the Southern Ocean that offer an apparent home to the headless chicken monster — and many other creatures.

“The Southern Ocean is home to an incredible abundance and variety of marine life, including commercially-sought-after species, the harvesting of which must be carefully managed for future generations,” Slocum said.

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