Deep-Sea Life

Prisoners in the Dark and Icy Depths

So much for the surface population of the ocean—the plankton layer is regarded as a hundred fathoms thick. We have considered only that over the mid-oceanic depths, but that of the shallow margins is different simply in the absence of some purely pelagic creatures, and in the presence of vast hordes of eggs and larvæ of the animals rooted in the sand or attached to the rocks and weeds from high-water mark down to a comparatively short distance below low-water mark. These I shall speak of more completely hereafter.

Before that, however, I want to say a few words in regard to the extraordinary inhabitants of the ocean's depths—depths which in some places exceed the elevation of the highest mountains on the land.

The conditions under which animal life exists there are vastly different from those at the surface, and it is not surprising to find these creatures of an extraordinary character. The pressure exerted by water on anything lowered into it increases at a rapid rate as the object sinks, so that at a depth of only 500 fathoms it equals about 100 times the pressure at the surface. This contributes to the density of underlying waters; the saltiness of the sea also adds to the water's density, but this decreases slightly from the surface downward. More important than density in its effect on living things is temperature. In the Sargasso Sea in summer the water at the surface will indicate about 52 degrees F., and at 100 fathoms of depth 48 degrees, below which it diminishes slowly to a little below the freezing point—32 degrees F. The water below a few hundred fathoms may therefore be regarded as a series of layers measured by degrees of density, temperature, etc., and this means a series of biological strata in each of which the denizens are more or less limited by unfavorable conditions above and below them.

A fourth factor conditioning deep-sea life is that of light. The sunlight penetrates to a much greater distance than was formerly believed; and experiments with photographic plates show that the blue rays may sink as far as 800 fathoms, but the red rays go much less down. Below that glimmer is absolute darkness, illuminated only by the phosphorescent glow of the lanterns carried by the animals moving about in that Stygian and icy abode—which would seem to us the most dreadful fate to which any creature on the globe is born.

It has been said that the ocean depths seem to be divided into horizontal zones, certain groups of animals being confined, when adults, within limits of depth determined by conditions suitable to them, one zone above the other. Practically, however, these intermediate life-zones can hardly be defined, and vary in different seas, and under changing conditions, as of season, and so forth. Animals taken only by deep hauls of the nets within the tropics, for instance, may be captured in cooler latitudes near the surface; furthermore, the vertical distribution of fishes, as a class, may differ from that of crustaceans as a class. Nevertheless it is true in general that many sorts of pelagic animals dwell at intermediate depths, from which, when they have become mature, they cannot either rise or descend any great distance. Among them are representatives of all the classes of marine life.

Let us now consider the creatures of the lowest level—those abysmal depths where eternal cold,stillness, darkness, and equability unite to make an environment so forbidding that human imagination would refuse to people it with living beings; yet where life and strife do actually exist, although by no means uniformly distributed. We know most about it as it exists in the bed of the north Atlantic.

The real bottom animals are mainly fixed—sponges, hydroids, sea anemones, bryozoans, brittle-stars, crinoids, brachiopods, holothurians, worms and mollusks. They are nowhere numerous remote from a shore, and below 2,500 fathoms are very scarce, to judge by the results of dredging. Their food comes wholly from the surface, apparently, some catching it as it falls and others sucking it out of the ooze. Moving about among these, and feeding on them, is a scanty population of snails, squids, crabs, and fishes, making their living upon or close to the bottom; and a larger and more varied company of relatives swim in the water above them up to, say, the 2,000-fathoms line. All these are of forms different in many respects from kindred species at or near the surface; and some brought up by the deep-sea dredge can hardly be distinguished from fossils entombed in the oldest fossiliferous rocks—so unchangeable is the environment in which their race has been propagated for perhaps fifty millions of years.

Through these dark abysses swim fishes with extraordinary and grotesque adaptations to their conditions. All are small, rarely six inches long, often less than an inch, yet armed to the teeth. This is especially true of the families Stomiatidæ and Sternoptychidæ, in which one finds fishes of the queerest shape, with big heads and a savage array of long sharp teeth. All are voracious, for food isscant and must be fought for; and some, as Chiasmodus, have mouths so capacious that they often swallow fishes larger than themselves, when their stretched stomachs hang beneath their slender bodies like the yolk sacs of newly born trout. All are dark in color, brown, blue or violet marking the abyssal species. Some of them have light-giving organs; and this was formerly regarded as a peculiar possession of deep-sea fishes, enabling them to see their prey in the gloom of their habitat, but it is now known that light-giving organs are especially characteristic of pelagic fishes of the region between the surface and 250 fathoms of depth. It must be remembered, however, that the sedentary invertebrates of the bottom glow with phosphorescence.

This outline of a vast body of information shows that the waters of the oceans are everywhere inhabited, to their uttermost deeps, by living beings; that these are adapted to various circumstances, and so form faunas of local extent and character; and that probably the sea derived its wealth of population—at least all that part superior to the monads—from the land, beginning with the earliest dawn of life on the globe.