Scientists using a new underwater camera system recently captured footage of a strange creature known as the “headless chicken monster” swimming about a mile deep in the Southern Ocean near Australia.
Resembling a chicken with its head cut off, sporting tentacles and waving fins, the creature has a fancy scientific name (Enypniastes eximia), but is more commonly known as the swimming sea cucumber or Spanish dancer, in honor of those frilly fins.
Recorded sightings of the “monster” go back at least to the late 19th century, shortly after an expedition aboard the converted British Navy vessel HMS Challenger launched the modern study of oceanography, discovering some 4,700 new species of animals and plants at all levels of the ocean. In 1882, for example, scientists spotted Enypniastes eximia for the first time in Peruvian waters.
Still, this is only the second time in history the creature has been caught on film. It swims at such great depths that scientists still don’t know too much about it, including how many may exist all over the world.
They do know that despite its monstrous appearance, the swimming sea cucumber actually serves an important function by consuming, breaking down and recycling the waste of other animals on the ocean floor. Past research has found that the creatures actually glow, thanks to the presence of bioluminescent granules in their jelly-like flesh, and that their skin is so sticky it rubs off on would-be predators, leaving tell-tale glowing patches on the attackers’ skin.
The newly filmed headless chicken monster was discovered around 2,500 miles off the southwest corner of Australia by a team employing new underwater camera technology developed for commercial long-line fishing. The cameras were attached to fishing lines that can be dropped nearly two miles below the water’s surface.
“We had no idea what it was,” Dirk Welsford, the program leader for the Australian Antarctic Division and one of the researchers who spotted the creature, told the New York Times. “It looks a bit like a chicken just before you put it in the oven.”
The swimming sea cucumber has been filmed once before, in the Gulf of Mexico in 2017. But it had never been seen so far south, Welsford said.
Reports of mysterious sea “monsters” go back as least as far as the 12th century, when King Sverre of Norway wrote the first account of what became known as the Kraken, a fearsome sea-dwelling giant that became a staple of Nordic folklore not long after the Viking Age. Another Norwegian writer later described the Kraken as being as big as a “number of small islands,” and measuring some 1.5 miles around. In the late 1850s, after the beak of a giant cephalopod washed up on Denmark’s shores, a Danish naturalist used its massive dimensions to scientifically describe the real-life Kraken as Architeuthis dux, or giant squid.