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Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Raksasa cockroach from the deep sea: the stuff nightmares are made of

Scientists have reported the discovery of the first 'supergiant' isopod species in the eastern Indian Ocean. It wears a helmet like Darth Vader’s, and looks utterly hideous. They can’t eat you, though — and it’s unlikely you’d want to eat them

Written by Dipanita Nath , Edited by Explained Desk | Pune | Updated: July 22, 2020 11:22:34 am
Explained | Raksasa cockroach from the deep: the stuff nightmares are made of The Bathynomus raksasa is a giant isopod in the genus Bathynomus. (Source: Twitter/@@MothershipSG)

A new creature has risen from the depths of the ocean—and it is a cockroach. A team of researchers from Singapore was scouring the unexplored waters of the Indian Ocean in Bantan, off the southern coast of West Java in Indonesia in 2018 when they discovered an animal that seemed to be wearing the helmet of Darth Vader, the epic dark lord of the Star Wars.

Earlier this month, after two years of study, the team confirmed the discovery of a new species called ‘Bathynomus raksasa’, a “supergiant” Bathynomus, and which has since been described as the “cockroach of the sea”.

The scientists reported their findings on July 8 in the peer-reviewed, open-access biodiversity research journal ‘ZooKeys’ [‘Description of the supergiant isopod Bathynomus raksasa sp. nov. (Crustacea, Isopoda, Cirolanidae) from southern Java, the first record of the genus from Indonesia’].

The authors of the paper, Conni M Sidabalok, Helen P S Wong, and Peter K L Ng wrote: “The epithet is the Indonesian word “raksasa” for giant, alluding to its enormous size and the significance of the find.”

While being a significant development in the scientific knowledge about the deep oceans, the arrival of the cockroach has triggered excitement mostly on account of the creature’s gruesome visage, which most of those who have seen the images have described as the stuff nightmares are made of.

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So how evil is the raksasa?

The Bathynomus raksasa is a giant isopod in the genus Bathynomus. The giant isopods are distantly related to crabs, lobsters, and shrimps (which belong to the order of decapods), and are found in the cold depths of the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans.

The cockroach of the sea has 14 legs but uses these only to crawl along the bed of oceans in search of food. The Darth Vader appearance is due to the shape of the cockroach’s head and compound eyes.

The Bathynomus raksasa measures around 50 centimetres (1.6 feet) in length, which is big for isopods, which normally do not grow beyond 33 cm (just over a foot). Isopods that reach 50 cm are referred to as supergiants. The only member of the isopod species that exceeds the raksasa in size is the Bathynomus giganteus, which is commonly found in the deep waters of the western Atlantic Ocean.

Who discovered the cockroach?

The 31-member group, comprising researchers and support staff, was led by Peter Ng of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum of the National University of Singapore (NUS). The project was conducted jointly by a NUS and Research Center for Oceanography (RCO) of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI).

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Using techniques ranging from trawling to dredging, they studied 63 sites over two weeks and returned with 12,000 of specimens from the deep sea, ranging from jellyfish, sponges, worms and molluscs to crabs, starfish, and urchins. The haul reportedly had 800 species, including 12 that were unknown to scientists.

How does the discovery of the cockroach matter to science?

Until now, the scientific community knew of five supergiant species, two of which are found in the western Atlantic. This is the first record of the genus from Indonesia.

“Bathynomus raksasa is the sixth ‘supergiant’ species from the Indo-West Pacific, and is one of the largest known members of the genus,” the researchers wrote.

The discovery takes the number of known giant isopods to 20. As the Bathynomus raksasa reveals its secrets, it will contribute towards increasing knowledge about the deep.

What does the raksasa eat? Can you eat them?

As a scavenger, Bathynomus raksasa eats the remains of dead marine animals, such as whales and fish, but can also go for long periods without food, a trait that it shares with the cockroach.

The raksasa prefers to do its own thing and does not interfere with others. The cockroach of the sea is found in large numbers primarily because most predators are not interested in them.

Although some isopods are indeed eaten in some parts of east and southeast Asia, the raksasa has very little meat and a thick shell, and human beings are unlikely to find them delicious.

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