Scientists discover 'longest living' creature off Australian coast

While it may resemble a man-made object or proof of alien life, the siphonophore Apolemia is instead the longest living thing on the planet.

Ningaloo Coast, Australia (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Ningaloo Coast, Australia
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Research from the California-based oceanography nonprofit the Schmidt Ocean Institute discovered a strange spiral formation floating in the open ocean near the Ningaloo Canyons in Australia. But while many may assume this is a man-made object or proof of alien life, the truth is in fact far simpler yet also far more shocking: It's simply the longest living thing on the planet.

Called a siphonophore Apolemia, though known in some places as a "long stringy stingy thingy," the massive tentacle-like creature was found 630 meters below the surface of the ocean off the coast of Australia. The entity is not a single living being, but is in fact a colony of tiny creatures called zooids, which attach together and clone themselves to become a cohesive entity together.
"The whole thing looks like one animal, but it's many thousands of individuals which form an entity on a higher level,"  Brown University marine biologist Stefan Siebert told Wired in 2014.
The zooids function as organs, essentially, each fulfilling a single function for the colony, whether that be digesting food, stinging prey, moving or reproducing. Despite its massive length, the organism is likely as thick as a broomstick, according to the Schmidt Ocean Institute.
As the above data shows, the sinphonophore isn't a new discovery. In fact, they are commonly seen. However, this discovery is nonetheless shocking for many experts.
“Everyone was blown away when it came into view,” biologists Nerida Wilson and Lisa Kirkendale from the Western Australian Museum told Science Alert.
“There was a lot of excitement. People came pouring into the control room from all over the ship. Siphonophores are commonly seen but this one was both large and unusual-looking.”
“I’ve gone on numerous expeditions and have never, EVER, seen anything like this,” University of North Carolina Asheville biologist Rebecca Helm said on a Twitter thread, adding that while siphonophores typically hang out and catch whatever food passes by – similar to jellyfish – this specimen seems to be outright hunting.
“Most of the siphonophore colonies I've seen are maybe a 20cm long, maybe a meter. But THIS animal is massive. AND not just massive, the colony is exhibiting a stunning behavior: it's hunting,” Helm said.

“A siphonophore colony in a line creates a curtain of deadly tentacles in the open ocean,” she wrote. “But in THIS case, the animal is hunting in a galaxy-like spiral.”
In addition, this sinphonophore stands out for its sheer size. It is unclear exactly how long it is, as a full measurement was impossible, but the outer ring alone is estimated to measure some 154 feet, and the entire sinphonophore could measure up to 390 feet. Even at its lowest estimate, this would still be at least 20 feet longer than any other known example of its kind.
For context, the animal typically considered the largest in the world, the blue whale, usually reaches 100 feet in length.
Though an amazing discovery, the sinphonophore was only one of several notable findings made by the Ningaloo Canyons Expedition, made up of researchers from Schmidt, the Western Australian Museum and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in their study of the largely unexplored deep-see canyons near Western Australia's Ningaloo Coast.
Stationed aboard the research vessel R/V Falkor, the team used a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to explore as well as secure samples of the deep-sea region.
"The average ocean depth is nearly 4,000 meters... and we've barely began to discover what's at that depth," the Schmidt Ocean Institute said in a video posted on a YouTube video of their expedition.
"We discovered a solitary hydroid, a relative of coral and sea anemone that stood well over a meter tall, the imagery of which I think will become the iconic image of the cruise, it's likely to be a new species," Scripps marine invertebrate expert Dr. Greg Rouse said.
In addition to new species, the expedition also served to capture footage and samples of species never before seen in the region, as well as rare record-breaking findings as the expedition explored regions of the ocean unseen before by human eyes.