French zoologist Alphonse Milne-Edwards was the first to describe the genus in 1879 after fishing a juvenile male B. giganteus from the Gulf of Mexico; this was an exciting discovery for both scientists and the public, as at the time the idea of a lifeless or "azoic" deep ocean had only recently been refuted by the work of Sir Charles Wyville Thomson and others. Females were not recovered until 1891.
Giant isopods are of little interest to most commercial fisheries owing to the typical paucity of catches and because ensnared isopods are usually scavenged beyond marketability before they are recovered. However, in Northern Taiwan and other areas, they are not uncommon at seaside restaurants, served boiled and bisected with a clean lateral slice. The white meat, similar to crab or lobster in texture, is then easily removed. The few specimens caught in the Americas with baited traps are sometimes seen in public aquaria.
The uniramous thoracic legs or pereiopods are arranged in seven pairs, the first of which are modified into maxillipeds to manipulate and bring food to the four sets of jaws. The abdomen has five segments called pleonites each with a pair of biramous pleopods; these are modified into natatory legs and rami, flat respiratory structures acting as gills. The isopods are a pale lilac in colour.
Giant isopods are important scavengers in the deep-sea benthic environment; they are found from the gloomy sublittoral zone at a depth of 170 m (550 ft) to the pitch darkness of the bathypelagic zone at 2,140 m (7,020 ft), where pressures are high and temperatures are very low (down to about 4 °C). Over 80% are found at a depth between 365 m and 730 m . They are thought to prefer a muddy or clay substrate and lead solitary lives.
Although generalist scavengers, these isopods are mostly carnivorous and feed on dead whales, fish, and squid; they may also be active predators of slow-moving prey such as sea cucumbers, sponges, radiolarians, nematodes and other zoobenthos, and perhaps even live fish. They are known to attack trawl catches. As food is scarce in the deep ocean biome, giant isopods must make do with what fortune brings; they are adapted to long periods of famine and have been known to survive over eight weeks without food in the aquarium. When a significant source of food is encountered, giant isopods gorge themselves to the point of compromising their locomotive ability. One study examining the contents of 1651 giganteus' guts found that fish were most common there, followed by cephalopods and decapods, particularly carideans and galatheids.
In 1990, the Scavengers of East Australian Seas expedition (SEAS) started to document the scavenging crustaceans along the east coast of Australia by setting traps. The deeper the water, the fewer number of species they found and the larger the species tended to be. The giant isopods found in very deep waters off Australia were compared to those found off Mexico and India. From the fossil record it is known that Bathynomus existed more than 160 million years ago, before the break-up of the supercontinent Pangaea, so it has not evolved independently in all three locations. Over this length of time it would be expected that Bathynomus would evolve independently in the various locations. However, the SEAS study found that the giant isopods in all three locations were almost identical. Andrew Parker in his book "In the Blink of an Eye" (from where this description of the SEAS expedition is taken) links this lack of evolution to the extremely low light levels of their habitat .
The young isopods emerge from the marsupium as miniatures of the adults, known as manca. This is not a larval stage: the manca are fully developed, lacking only the last pair of pereopods. A brooding female is at risk of losing her eggs if she overindulges in food to the point of bloating.