For years, scientists assumed that large swaths of the ocean were basically lifeless, underwater deserts. But it turns out that the bottom of the eastern central Pacific Ocean is actually teeming with life — including the cute and strange gummy squirrel.
Are you picturing a squirrel-shaped gummy bear? That's actually kind of what it is, or at least what researchers thought of when they spotted this strange creature.
They at least look as much like a squirrel as a sea cucumber can, though they're actually a bit larger, since they can grow to be about 2 feet long.
Like a squirrel, they hold their "tails" aloft in the air. Scientists believe this may act as a kind of sail for the gummy squirrel, allowing it to catch currents and bounce along the seafloor.
It's sailing around looking for better feeding grounds, kind of like a squirrel looking for nuts. Gummy squirrels eat particles of phytoplankton detritus that drift all the way down from the water's surface 3 miles above — like nuts falling from a tall tree.
Then it eats the plankton with 18 feeding palps on its underbelly. Kind of like – well, that's really where the similarities with squirrels end.
Not the gummy squirrel's best angle. (UH/NHM/UG/DeepCCZ expedition)
They're also brightly colored, which scientists believe wards off predators who think they're poisonous, despite their tasty gummy appearance.
Researchers were surprised to find anything in the underwater desert, but were particularly surprised to find the gummy squirrel, a kind of sea cucumber they believed didn't live that deep in the ocean, or in that region of the world.
Maybe they got lost burying underwater acorns in the seafloor? But it's actually more likely that these gummy squirrels are an entirely separate species from their friends on the other side of the ocean.
Now that scientists know how many species are in this part of the ocean — including not just the gummy squirrel but also a ton of new worms — it's more likely to be protected from undersea mining.