Scientists exploring a deep swath of ocean in the Hawaiian archipelago got an unexpected surprise when they stumbled across a monstrous bottom-dwelling creature.
Earthlings, soak in the largest sponge ever recorded -- and what scientists say could very well be one of the planet's oldest living animals.
The discovery, made last summer by a team of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists aboard the agency's 224-foot Okeanos Explorer, is documented in a report published this week in the journal Marine Biodiversity.
The sponge was found in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, a World Heritage Site, at a depth of 7,000 feet. It measured roughly 12 feet long, 7 feet tall and 5 feet wide -- about the size of a minivan.
Daniel Wagner, a NOAA research specialist and co-leader of the expedition, said "finding such an enormous and presumably old sponge emphasizes how much can be learned from studying deep and pristine environments," including Papahānaumokuākea.
Previously, the largest documented sponge was one discovered in 1887 off the coast of western Canada in less than 100 feet of water, according to the report. That sponge was comparable in length to the one found northwest of the main Hawaiian Islands, but not nearly as tall or wide.
Wagner and co-author Christopher Kelley note in their report that some marine sponges have been estimated to live more than 2,300 years and attain massive sizes, "providing key ecosystem services such as filtering large amounts of seawater, as well as providing important habitat to a myriad of invertebrate and microbial species."
The recent discovery, they wrote, "underscores the need to protect this area using the highest conservation measures available."