For ocean explorers with deep-diving toys, the joy of discovery is still attainable right here on Planet Earth. Over the summer, the crew of Okeanos Explorer encountered this seascape around Johnston Atoll in the Pacific Ocean:

Credit: NOAA

I love how that stalked sponge species is reminiscent of the Sleeper House, a Mid-Century-Mod chateau that appeared in the Woody Allen film Sleeper that is famously visible to anyone driving on Interstate-70 west of Denver. These same sponges, when viewed from up-current, have two gaping holes that also give them the appearance of some sort of folk art mask, or of one of the spirits in Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.

Many of these animals are glass sponges, early-evolved animals with skeletons made of gloriously intricate silica spicules, microscopic bits of oddly-shaped glass (I’ve written about glass sponges and their spicules before here and here). Glass sponges are also noted for the weird “bodies”. Normal sponges are made up of cells that are not always attached to one another, and many wander more or less freely about the castle. Famously, if you liquefy a sponge by forcing it through a sieve, it will reconstruct itself from its component cells.

Glass sponges take this weirdness up a notch by not really having “cells” per se – or at least not many of them -- but rather a continuous network of cytoplasm containing many nuclei, or DNA storage compartments. You can read more in my old post here. They may also be some of the oldest animals on Earth. Individuals of Monorhaphis chuni may live over 10,000 years(!). The tradeoff, of course, is that those 10,000 years feel like 10 million as you sit cold and alone in the dark on the seafloor.

So the Forest of the Weird is not just weird to look at. It’s also made up of some of the most deeply weird creatures on Earth, about whom we still have much to learn.