A few days ago, I was moving a bunch of soggy pallets from the back 40 on our property. As I generally like to do when flipping over wet, rotting things, I was inspecting the bugs that had taken up residence in them. There were more pill bugs than usual, which is saying a lot when flipping over wet, rotting things, so I stuck my hand palm down into the spongy pallet wood and watched as they scampered all over the back of it. The nervous ones rolled themselves into balls like tiny little armadillos while the braver ones poked around between my fingers, looking for whatever it is pill bugs are looking for.
You might call them rollie pollies or sowbugs, but you know what I’m talking about, right? Cute little fellas. But if they were, say, a foot-and-a-half long… well, maybe not so cute. Thankfully, the ones that are a foot-and-a-half long live in a place where you or I — unless something has gone horribly wrong in our lives — will never be.
The Bathynomous giganteus, a.k.a the giant isopod to those who don’t speak Latin, is a close relative of our land-based pill bugs, which should be obvious to someone with eyeballs. They live in the deep sea, from the sublittoral zone at around 600 feet to the the pitch black bathyal zone that reaches down to 7,000 feet. And much like pill bugs, they play an important role in their habitat: they’re the cleanup crew.
They’re known as “generalist scavengers,” feeding mostly on dead meat. Whales, fish, squid, and the like. Since food is hard to find in the deep ocean, giant isopods have evolved to either eat whatever they can find or, if they can’t find anything, simply not eat. They’ve been known to live up to five years without food in captivity.
The one in the video above was recorded in 2019, during an NOAA mission aboard the ship Okeanos Explorer. The mission’s purpose was to collect baseline information about unknown and poorly understood deepwater areas of the Southeastern U.S. continental margin. While filming around 40 miles southeast of Key West, Florida at a depth of almost 4,000 feet, the researchers ran into this giant isopod disposing of a fish head and looking very happy with itself while doing so.