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Oceans of biodiversity

This bright red siphonophore, Marrus claudanielis, is one of over 200 new species discovered through MBARI research.

Oceans of biodiversity

Over 200 new deep-sea species discovered through MBARI research

The slide show above highlights a few of the deep-sea animals discovered through MBARI research. Click on the images and videos to see larger versions and background information on each animal.

In celebrating World Oceans Day (June 8), we often talk about the importance of biodiversity in the ocean. One key element of biodiversity is how many different species live in a particular area. But in the deep sea, understanding biodiversity is difficult because so many species have yet to be given formal scientific names. In the slide show above, you can see a few of the over 200 species that have been discovered through MBARI research. One of these animals, Culeolus barryi, was formally named just a few weeks ago.

MBARI’s remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) have given scientists many opportunities to see as-yet-unidentified deep-sea animals. They also allow researchers to collect these animals so that they can be studied by experts on shore.

After reviewing MBARI’s records and hundreds of scientific papers, MBARI biologist Linda Kuhnz estimates that over 130 animals have been formally named using data, video, and specimens collected by MBARI’s ROVs. She also estimates that at least another 70 species collected by MBARI researchers are new to science but have yet to be formally named.

Many of these discoveries were made possible because of MBARI’s Video Annotation and Reference System—a huge database that contains information on virtually every animal ever seen during MBARI’s ROV dives.

Some of these new animals are so strange and fascinating that they have practically become celebrities, their videos gathering millions of views on MBARI’s YouTube site. Other animals are so inconspicuous that they barely rate a nod from specialists in the field. But big or small, all of them contribute to our overall knowledge of biodiversity in the deep sea.

Naming new animals—not as easy as it seems

Although giving a species its own name would seem to be a simple process, it actually takes a lot of time and dedication on the part of the scientists involved. Seeing a weird new animal is just the beginning. The next step is to collect one or more of these animals and bring them back to shore intact. At that point, researchers often work with one or more experts to determine if the collected animal is new to science or one that has already been named.

These taxonomic experts typically examine the collected specimen(s) inside and out, using both their naked eye and a microscope. Their goal is to find key features that differentiate one species from another. This could be the number of antennae or the shape, size, and number of the gonads, or any number of finicky little details that most of us would overlook, but which a few experts have mastered through years of experience.

Unfortunately, not very many biologists these days specialize in taxonomy—the process of classifying organisms. For some groups of deep-sea animals, there may only be three or four experts in the entire world who are capable of telling different species apart. To make matters worse, the established experts in some groups of animals are nearing retirement and few younger students are motivated to pursue this often unglamorous and detail-oriented work. Even for established researchers in the field, the time involved in species identification often means that they have a long list of species that have been observed but not yet classified.

In recent decades, traditional “morphological” (shape-based) approaches to classifying organisms have been augmented with DNA analyses, which provide a different method for understanding how various species are related to one another. Such genomic techniques are especially useful for groups of animals that look very similar. DNA analyses have also shown that some animals that look similar are not closely related, but evolved similar traits independently.

After confirming with other scientists that an organism is new to science, the discovering scientists typically get to decide on a species name. Sometimes researchers choose a Greek or Latin word that describes features that make the animal unique. Other times they may name the organism after a colleague who has contributed to the research, an important figure in the field, or occasionally a celebrity. Several deep-sea animals, such the jelly Tiburonia granrojo in the slide show above, have even been named after MBARI’s underwater vehicles.

All scientific names have two key parts—the genus, which indicates the group of organisms most closely related to the new organism, and the species, which is unique to that that particular organism. For example when we say that the scientific name for humans is Homo sapiens, Homo is the genus (which means “man” in Latin, and includes a number of different prehistoric human ancestors) and sapiens is the species (which means “wise” in Latin). Note that the genus is always capitalized and the species is always in lower case, and both are printed in italics.

After picking a name, the researchers must complete two more steps to finish the naming process. First a “type specimen” or “voucher specimen” of the organism must be sent to the archives of a respected scientific institution, such as the Smithsonian Institution or the California Academy of Sciences, for permanent storage.

Finally, the researcher and colleagues must publish a scientific paper describing key details about the organism’s morphology and/or DNA, how it is different from other related organisms, and how it fits into the “tree of life.” Getting this paper published can often take six to eighteen months. Only after the paper is published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal can the new species name can be used by other researchers.

Given this long, complicated process, it’s no surprise that some deep-sea biologists have a large backlog of animals that they know to be newly discovered species, but which have yet to be given formal names. In the meantime, the researchers who make these discoveries must make do with nicknames such as “big red jelly” or “mystery mollusc.”

Article by Kim Fulton-Bennett and Megan Bassett

For additional information or images relating to this article, please contact: Kim Fulton-Bennett