What's happening right now beneath the cold coastal waters along Canada's Pacific Coast?
Among the billions of biological interactions—from mollusks eating plankton to cormorants diving for fish—there are elephant seals devouring hagfish.
Until a few weeks ago, scientists weren't sure how this happened, but the internet plus a curious 14-year-old helped complete the puzzle (more on that later).
If you're like most people, you don't know what a hagfish is. It's an eel-like sea creature that oozes up to 20 litres of slime when its body secretions react with seawater. Put a hagfish in a five-gallon bucket of water, and the container fills with goo in a matter of seconds. This prodigious production makes hagfish unpalatable to most predators and can actually block the gills of attacking fish .
These strange creatures don't have jaws (more loveliness!), so they can chew to the centre of dead fish, and then eat them from the inside out.
In parts of the Pacific, hundreds of thousands of hagfish cover a single kilometre of the sea floor. Maybe that's why they've changed little in the past 300-million years. Why evolve when you're so dialled in?
Elephant seals are no less amazing. They can hold their breath for almost two full hours, and dive up to 1,500 metres below sea level, deeper than any other seal, sea lion or walrus. Once hunted to near extinction, elephant seal populations have rebounded, but with lingering concerns about a lack of genetic diversity.
The scientific discovery started 900 metres below the ocean surface off Vancouver Island, where a NEPTUNE Canada deep-sea camera was sending live-stream footage from the sea floor.
Meanwhile, halfway around the world, in Donetsk, Ukraine, 14-year-old biology buff Kirill Dudko, watching the livestream on his home computer, saw something "with a nose and moustache" eat a hagfish. He contacted NEPTUNE scientists, who checked the footage and determined it was an elephant seal.
Without young Kirill, NEPTUNE scientists likely would have never seen this encounter, because they simply don't have time to watch 24 hours a day. But thanks to his dedicated curiosity, they were able to pinpoint the time of the encounter and take a closer look. They now believe elephant seals slurp up the hagfish before it has a chance to secrete slime.
Citizen-assisted science is on the upswing, but even with the power of the internet and humanity's immeasurable curiosity, there's no end in sight to understanding our oceans' biological processes. Still, this kind of event helps us understand some of the basics.
There's an important lesson here. With such huge gaps in our understanding of ocean ecosystems, good fisheries management with networks of marine protected areas are more important than ever to keep our oceans healthy. Canada needs to get back on track with ocean management plans.