Bathynomus yucatanensis

(Dr Ming-Chih Huang, Journal of Natural History)

The world has always eyed the Gulf of Mexico for its bountiful reservoirs of natural gas, oil and even fossils of famous prehistoric dinosaurs like Ankylosaurus and T-rex. However, a treasure trove of extant marine life also thrives in the sea, although it remains fairly understudied.

Well aware of the possibility of finding something worthy, a group of Taiwanese, Japanese, and Australian researchers went on a treasure hunt in 2017 — not for oil, but in search of life in the deepest ecological region of the sea: the benthic zone.

And guess what? They actually pulled out a new species of an isopod belonging to the genus Bathonymus — commonly referred to as “Darth Vader of the Seas” due to the uncanny resemblance of their heads with the Star Wars character’s helmet.

This new-found crustacean, named Bathonymus yucatanensis, has 14 legs and is around 26 cm long — approximately 25 times larger than its closest relative, the common woodlouse The species was named after Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula — the region from where the species was caught.

While you’d think that these blonde creatures would frighten the daylights out of any human being, the “Vanilla Vaders” are, in fact, harmless to humans. Their extraordinary size is only due to deep-sea gigantism — a phenomenon wherein creatures dwelling on the ocean floor tend to grow bigger than their terrestrial relatives due to lack of sunlight.

Scientists initially thought the creature to be a variation of B. giganteus — one of the largest deep-sea isopods discovered over a century ago — due to the same number of spines at the tail end of their bodies. However, detailed DNA analysis revealed an array of unique features.

This new giant isopod is comparatively more slender, has longer antennae and a body shaped like an inverted triangle. Further, its creamy yellow colour distinguishes the crustacean from its other grey-bodied cousins.

Its discovery has taken the tally of the Gulf of Mexico’s giant isopods to three, but it indicates that the ecological diversity of this ocean may be more complex than previously thought, as per the author of this study.

Meanwhile, in spite of its recent discovery, the Bathonymus yucatanensis and its related giant isopod species are being sporadically exploited for commercial potential as seafood, and this has made them into new targets for deep-sea trawl fisheries.


For weather, science, space, and COVID-19 updates on the go, download The Weather Channel App (on Android and iOS store). It’s free!