Why we need to research strange underwater creatures

The sea is full of strange, little-understood creatures, says researcher Alejandro Sánchez Alvarado at TEDxKC (Collage: Alejandro Sánchez Alvarado)

The sea is full of strange, little-understood creatures, says researcher Alejandro Sánchez Alvarado at TEDxKC (Collage: Alejandro Sánchez Alvarado)

Alejandro Sánchez Alvarado is an advocate for underwater creatures with behaviors almost too weird to believe. From a plankton/jellyfish that reproduces asexually and births its slinky-like progeny from its “head” (see below) to a worm that can be sliced into 18 pieces and keep living, the researcher believes investigating these little-understood lifeforms — and finding new ones — may hold the secret to new breakthroughs in science.

A tunicate called Thalia democratica asexually births its offspring from its 'head' (Video: Alejandro Sánchez Alvarado)

A tunicate called Thalia democratica asexually births its offspring from its “head” (Video: Alejandro Sánchez Alvarado)

We have only combed through a tiny section of the world’s oceans, Alvarado says, while “ninety-five percent of our oceans remains unexplored.” This 95% could be the key to cures for currently incurable diseases, better understanding of our genetic history, expansions to our tree of life, if only people believed in the value of this exploration, Alvarado says. “We are measuring an astonishingly narrow sliver of life and hoping that those numbers will save all our lives [by propelling research],” he says.

“What is even more tragic is that [many underwater creatures'] biology remains sorely understudied,” Alvarado says. For example — the Schmidtea mediterranea, a type of flatworm that is common in coastal areas around the Mediterranean can regenerate itself after being chopped up into parts, yet it isn’t a household name or hot button topic in science.

“You can grab one of these animals and cut them into 18 different fragments and each and every one of those fragments will go on to regenerate a complete animal in under two weeks,” he says. “18 heads, 18 bodies, 18 mysteries.”

The regeneration process of a Schmidtea mediterranea (Photos: Alejandro Sánchez Alvarado)

The regeneration process of a Schmidtea mediterranea (Photos: Alejandro Sánchez Alvarado / Jochen Rink)

“For the past decade and a half or so I’ve been trying to figure out how these little dudes do what they do and how they pull this magic trick off, but like all good magicians they’re not really releasing their secrets,” Alvarado says.

More bizarre animals loved by Alejandro Sánchez Alvarado (Collage: Alejandro Sánchez Alvarado)

More bizarre animals loved by Alejandro Sánchez Alvarado (Collage: Alejandro Sánchez Alvarado)

What’s interesting about creatures like Schmidtea mediterranea, Thalia democratica, and many other odd sea creatures, Alvarado says, is that they don’t follow the rules of the usual animals scientists use for medical research. And for this very reason, they may be holding the answers to difficult questions researchers are still trying to figure out.

To learn more, watch Alvarado’s whole talk below:

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