What’s your favourite Greenlandic animal?

Chris Yesson

Ahead of our evening Science and Conservation Event on 8 June 2021 showcasing a decade of researching Greenland’s seabed by ZSL, I asked my current, former (and future) colleagues conducting research in Greenland: "What is your favourite marine animal from the region?". The answers showcase some of the truly awesome creatures living in the waters around Greenland, that bely the misapprehension that Arctic waters are cold, dark and barren places.


Habitat formers

  • Stephen Long (PhD researcher at ZSL/UCL) picks the brittle star Heliometra.

Feather stars in Greenland © Stephen Long“It can be hard to imagine what life is like in the deep-sea. Most scientists who study this deep dark world will never actually go there. Often we rely on specimens recovered from hundreds or thousands of meters below the sea’s surface using nets or dredges. Frequently, the specimens recovered are broken, fragmented and almost unrecognisable from their natural state. Feather stars or crinoids are a great example and one of my favourites. Their hard fragile skeleton rarely survives the journey to the surface intact. However, deep-sea cameras allow us to see them in their world, not ours. Only then can we truly appreciate the delicate structure of these organisms and how collectively they form strange and complex habitats. This image demonstrates this perfectly, completely unlike the fragments I have previously seen at the surface onboard research vessels."

  • Irina Chemshirova (former ZSL intern and student - now at Falkland Islands Fishery Department) selects the soft corals (family Nephtheidae)

Coral garden with grenadier fish

“I have to go for the Soft Corals of the family Nephtheidae, particularly the Duva species. I looked through some of the old photos from the 1970s & 1980s, and I remembered how exciting it was to see one of those on the seabed and amusing because they made me think of broccoli. But not only that, it always gave me hope, the fact that a region can be trawled for 60-something years, and we are still able to come across these is a wonderful example of resilience in something that can be deemed fragile at first sight.”

  • Bridget Sparrow-Scinocca (Project Lead at the Toronto Zoo, former Benthic Ecologist and MSc Student at ZSL) chooses the anemone family Hormathiidae. 

Anemone field in Greenland

“My first ever independent project as an aspiring marine biologist was with the beautiful pink and green sea anemone, Anthopleura elegantissima in British Columbia, Canada. When I first saw this deep-sea group of anemones, analyzing video for my masters project, I was delighted to see them in such high numbers! Don’t let these beautiful flower-like creatures fool you, they are predators with a few tricks up their sleeve for ensnaring their prey in their tentacles. Their deadly tentacles are covered in nematocysts, tiny stinging cells, designed to stun and latch on to their prey as they pull it into their mouth and digest it whole! The high densities of Hormathiidae that I saw in Greenland motivated me to discover if these animals could create a structural framework which could provide a home for a large range of other species. Interestingly enough, with every marine project I have ever worked on I have found a higher number of anemones than any other animal. This has led me to always have a bit of a sweet spot for these fascinating creatures! 

  • Diana Krawcyk  (Research scientist at Greenland Climate Research Centre) chooses anemones too.

Anemone scene - Greenland © Diana Krawcyk“As a non-biologist, interested in mapping the geology of the seabed, my perception on sea creatures is purely esthetic, but my favorite is this sea anemone due its physical resemblance with a sunflower, thus the symbol of sun, which is the main reason why life exists on this planet.”




  • Mona Fuhrmann (former ZSL postdoctoral researcher - now at Institute of Marine Research, Norway) chooses the cup coral Flabellum alabastrum

Cup coral field - Greenland © Stephen Long“My favourite are cup corals! They are peculiar animals of the deeper seas, which we know little about. Every animal sits in a calcareous “cup”, maybe comparable to a snail house in snails. Cup corals are predatory and feed on zooplankton, which they paralyze with stingy cells on the tentacles.”

  • Sandra Maier (Benthic researcher at NIOZ) also chooses cup corals 

"I choose the cup coral Flabellum alabastrum. They live ‘in’ (on) sediment (whilst often, Scleractinian corals are very sensitive to sediment), the also occur very deep for Scleracinian corals, according to WORMS down to 2000m. They have this really interesting behaviour of ‘polyp expansion’ and MOVEMENT along the sea bed." 


The weird and wonderful

  • Martin Blicher (Benthic ecologist at Greenland Climate Research Centre) picks the basket star Gorgonocephalus

Basket star - Greenland © Martin Blicher“On one of my first scuba dives as a young researcher in Greenland – in the high-Arctic North East Greenland – I unexpectedly met the iconic basket star (Gorgonocephalus sp.), an ancient species, which normally occurs in the deeper waters. The basket star is essentially an oversized brittle star with five arms branching into hundreds of coiled arm tips almost motionlessly fishing for food particles drifting by in the current. On this particular location - a steep basalt rock wall – it was standing majestically on the rocky ground together with colorful cauliflower corals and sea anemones. ‘Gorgonocephalus is named with reference to Greek mythology: Gorgós meaning "dreaded" and -cephalus meaning "head", and refers to Gorgons’s head with its coiled serpents for hair. The Greek mythological hero Perseus beheaded the Gorgon Medusa; when Perseus later dropped Medusa's head on the beach, her petrifying glance turned the nearby seaweed to stone, creating the first coral’. The beautiful underwater scenery and the reference to the Greek myth made this an intense underwater experience for me as a young adventurous researcher. Gorgonocephalus has been one of my favorite animals ever since.”

  • Emmeline Broad (Benthic researcher at ZSL) picks a carnivorous sponge Chondrocladia grandis

Carnivorous sponge - Greenland © Chris Yesson“I am quite a fan of the special adaptations that some deep-sea animals use to find food. I think my favourite is the carnivorous sponge Chondrocladia grandis, which we have seen anchored in the deep muddy sediments around Greenland. Unlike most marine sponges which filter their food from the seawater, this carnivorous sponge has branches that end in sticky inflatable spheres ready to ensnare any small creature that touches it. Much like a Venus fly trap, the sponge engulfs its prey and digests them, slowly!” 

  • Nick Barrett (former masters student at ZSL - now a PhD researcher at Cambridge / BAS) chooses Zoantharia.

Zooanthids - Greenland © Chris Yesson

“I like zoanthids because they are a really bright and colourful addition to the sea floor fauna, and although they look like mini sea anemones they are in fact a completely separate sister order to corals and anemones, having their own unique evolutionary history. Shallow water species often host photosynthetic algae (called zooxanthellae), just like their close coral relatives, receiving organic carbon as a food source. However, many of the deep sea zoanthid species have lost their symbiotic algae partners due to the lack of light and instead feed on other animals such as small shrimps and krill. Their longish stalks mean that they sway side to side, and often looked like they were dancing in unison when we were dragging the camera above them!”


The Swimmers

  • Kirsty Kemp (ZSL research fellow) chooses the Greenland Shark, Somniosus microcephalus

Greenland shark © Julius Neilsen“Occasionally a Greenland Shark comes up on deck in the nets. This is sad when it happens but scientists are scientists - and no information is wasted. These animals, though they are one of the largest shark species in the world (at up to 5.5m), and hugely important apex predators in the Arctic ecosystem, remain incredibly elusive. Very little is known about their life history. On one of my earlier Arctic cruises a colleague (Julius Neilsen) was very keen to collect the eyes, specifically the lenses, of any sharks accidentally caught. In the next few years, crystals in these lenses were subjected to radiocarbon dating. This work caught the world’s attention by aging the sharks at a minimum of 300 years old, and speculating they could easily live up to 500, possibly even 600 years old. When we see them periodically on our cameras (this happens extremely rarely, I've only seen them twice on deep baited cameras) it is astonishing to think the beautiful creature staring at the camera could have been swimming the same seas when Columbus made his way west...could have shared the planet with Da Vinci....Galileo…  Equally (more?) astonishing is their reproductive history. Though they are not believed to reach sexual maturity until roughly 150 years of age, they birth on average 10 pups per litter. Even with their estimated gestation time of one to two decades (!) they could easily birth more than 200 pups in their lifetime. They are beautiful, amazing and elusive denizens of the deep Arctic, with a lot more left to teach us”.

Greenland Shrimp © Kirsty Kemp“My favorite is probably the cold water prawn (close race with the lumpfish). I think the prawn is quite a fascinating little animal. Just the fact that they change sex from male to female after app. 3 years is a bit remarkable. And they can live to 9 years old, which is a lot for such a small animal. Then there’s the fact that the male (not the female) carries the fertilized eggs on his legs until they hatch. It’s funny to look at pictures of the shrimp jumping up and down on the seabed with its small “spider legs”, long “antennas” and its big black eyes. Then there’s the economic side of things. The cold water prawn plays an absolutely essential role in the Greenlandic economy because c. 90 % of the country’s export revenue or export earning come from fisheries (overall). The prawn is by far the most important economical species in Greenland because it alone accounts for 2/3ds of the total fishery export. And last – but not least – cold water prawns are one of my absolute favorite dishes. And has been for as long as I can remember. I never get tired of eating them!"


Join our online Science and Conservation Event, "Life in the cold: celebrating a decade of collaborative marine research in Greenland" next Tuesday 8 June at 6pm on YouTube to discover more about the wonders and variety of the seabed life around Greenland.

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