Mysterious purple ocean orb starts to reveal its secrets

Scientists get a closer look at a strange purple sphere found in the ocean and have some ideas about its origins.

Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
Amanda Kooser
2 min read
Nautilus orb
Enlarge Image
Nautilus orb

The purple orb actually has two lobes.

Ocean Exploration Trust

Everybody loves a good mystery.

Researchers with the Exploration Vessel Nautilus peered down through a camera at the ocean floor in mid-July and found something very odd there. A bright-purple sphere glowed in the camera's light. Scientific curiosity kicked in and the researchers suctioned up the strange creature for a closer look. Now they're sharing the latest information on the discovery.

The Nautilus team initially thought the critter might be a nudibranch, a type of soft-bodied marine mollusk. Current thinking is that it could actually be a close relation called a pleurobranch.

"Pleurobranchs have rhinophores (ear-like structures) in a particular location and a gill under the emantle on the right side, but we are still determining if this is present on this sample. Currently none of the known species of California deep-sea pleurobranchs are purple, so this could be a new discovery," the team said on its website Wednesday.

The orb was found in Arguello Canyon, an underwater canyon west of the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of Southern California. It was living at a depth of 5,301 feet (1,616 meters). It's only about 2 inches (5 centimeters) in size. Researchers sent samples of the creature to the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology for further identification work.

Watch this: Purple orb at the bottom of the ocean baffles scientists

Closeup photos of the purple orb show a more complex creature than could originally be seen on underwater video. It's not just a single sphere but seems to have a couple of lobes, making it look a bit like a sci-fi alien brain. There's also a slug-like part of the creature, which fits with the pleurobranch idea. Pleurobranchs are a type of sea slug.

The Nautilus is funded by the Ocean Exploration Trust, an organization dedicated to studying the scientific wonders of the seafloor. The Nautilus is a high-tech floating laboratory that aims to "explore areas of the ocean that have never been explored before, seeking out new discoveries in the fields of geology, biology, maritime history, archaeology, and chemistry." Think of it as the USS Enterprise of ocean vessels.

The Nautilus team isn't rushing to conclusions: "It could possibly take years for scientists to definitively determine whether it's a newly discovered species!"