New ‘Poké Ball’ robot catches deep-sea critters without harming them

Like a submarine Poké Ball, a new robotic device gently captures and releases deep-sea creatures without a scratch. This critter catcher could be decked out with cameras and other sensors to give scientists an unprecedented view of life in one of Earth’s most mysterious environments.

The contraption, designed to be mounted on a remotely operated underwater vehicle, folds into a 12-sided box about 21 centimeters across. Using a joystick, an operator on board a nearby ship can carefully close this box around soft-bodied creatures, like jellies and cephalopods, that might be hurt or killed by other specimen-collection tools. Temporarily detaining creatures inside the enclosure, described online July 18 in Science Robotics, would create rare opportunities for closeup inspection of otherwise elusive deep-sea creatures.

Deep-sea free-floaters, including some jellyfish and their gelatinous ilk, are “sometimes considered the forgotten fauna,” says study coauthor David Gruber, a marine biologist at Baruch College, City University of New York. While many biologists survey the hustle and bustle of the seafloor, homing in on small creatures in open water is much more difficult, he says, so our understanding of these animals is “almost a blank slate.”

Researchers have a few tools in their arsenals for capturing open-water animals and bringing them to the surface for examination. Unfortunately, nets or suction devices well suited for nabbing sturdy deep-sea dwellers, like fish and crustaceans, can shred fragile life-forms like comb jellies and siphonophores (SN: 7/16/05, p. 46). The new creature-catching gadget offers “a really cool” way to handle the deep sea’s most delicate residents more gently, says Kelly Robinson, a biological oceanographer at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette not involved in the work.

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