On new species
Still, there are a few intangible perks to describing a new species. One is a certain understandability that the general public has about new species. If I tell a new acquaintance at a cocktail party (which I attend at least 8 days a week… anyway you know the figure of speech) that “we discovered a new species”, he or she seems to think it is significant. In contrast, if I say, we found a new class of vision genes in jellyfish, their eyes glaze over. Or in response, they might ask something like, “oh wow, so will that help us cure blindness, or better yet vision cancer?”). Another perk is a certain “geek cred” among those who value natural history. After all, you must be a real expert to be able to find a new species right? As I’ll discuss later, a final perk is that you get to name it!
Despite these few advantages, finding new species of ostracods for us is a bit of a hassle, honestly. It means that we really should describe the species before analyzing it (but see above regarding citation rate and grant funds – also I don’t think geek cred increases linearly with the number of species described, I think it asymptotes at about 1.1). This “hassle” of finding new ostracods is a common occurrence. In many places, roughly half of the ostracods I’ve collected are unknown to science. These are not inaccessible places. These places are beaches in the Florida Keys, where tens of tourists snorkel every day, or piers in
The initial discovery
A few years ago, I was visiting the University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez marine lab, which is in Magueyes, near the famous bioluminescence bay. I was visiting my friend, who is a professor there, and we were using their ship to collect some deep sea ostracods. Before that cruise, I decided to do a bit of collecting near the pier. The marine lab is on a tiny little island. It used to be a zoo, and there are large lizards all over the island, which I’m told are descended from those that escaped from the zoo. To get to the island, one must take a boat across a small channel; they have attendants there 24 hours a day!
I’d collected in the Caribbean before, and I expected to be able to collect Skogsbergia lerneri, a species I’ve collected in
I was so surprised for two reasons. First, Euphilomedes is one of my favorite genera (another certain ostra-blog candidate), because the males have large compound eyes and the females do not. My lab is interested in how this strange eye dimorphism occurs developmentally and genetically. Second, Euphilomedes had never been described from the
Study and description
Fast forward a couple of years. I decided it would be a good idea to describe this species I had found back at Isla Magueyes. First, we had started studying eye development of Euphilomedes from
Why was this Euphilomedes in my bucket when I had just dipped it into the ocean? Well, ostracods usually live down in the sediment, making a living between the sand grains. But some swim, often just after sunset, usually to mate. Some ostracods are bioluminescent, the males signal with flashing lights to attract females (yet another future ostra-blog). I’ve collected some animals (mostly males) in light traps. So, I hypothesized that this Euphilomedes was being attracted to the lights at the pier. The undergrads’ first experiment was to test this hypothesis. To do this, they passed a small net through the water, the length of the pier. They put the resulting critters into a dish and counted what they had, repeating this every 15 minutes. They found that this Eupilomedes had a strong peak of activity about 2 hours after sunset. Essentially all of the Eupilomedes they collected were males, consistent with the idea that males swam around trying to find females to mate with. Females probably only mate once, and then do not swim up any more, thus the strong bias in males versus females.
The students also made many SCUBA dives to find where else this Eupilomedes lives. Another way to collect ostracods is by dragging a net across the bottom of the ocean, where the animals usually spend most of their time. We then sort the sand to keep the size class that will have ostracods, and laboriously sort sand grain from ostracod. This is another reason why it was so great to find this Eupilomedes – it is fairly rare to be able to get so many animals just by dragging a net through the water – we could get hundreds of males at a time this way, without having to sort them from sand. In the end, the students found that this Eupilomedes was living all over around the nearby patch reefs, some times very abundantly, especially in fine grained sand. Hundreds of boats, fishermen, wind surfers and SCUBA divers pass through these waters, all the time; while this unknown and fascinating species lurked inconspicuously between the sand grains below them.
Deciding on a name
A really fun part about describing a species is naming it. I took this pretty seriously, especially given some of the great names that people have come up with. Some of my favorite ostracods (again future ostra-blog candidates) are Harleya davidsoni, coined by my colleagues and motorcycle aficionados Kerry Swanson and Thomas Jellinick, and Kornickeria marleyi, named after Bob by Anne Cohen and Jim Morin. Some scientific names are pretty hard to top, like the clam formerly known as Abra cadabra or the wasp named Pison eyvae. (If you like these, you'll have fun if you check curioustaxonomy.net ). I won't go into some of the other candidate names, just suffice to say that in the end, we decided to name our new species after a mythical creature, "el chupacabra". On our first trip, I had fun joking around about the chupacabra with one of my friends who came along. Also, since the myth started in Puerto Rico, it seemed fitting to name this species after it. We simply dubbed it Euphilomedes chupacabra.
If you don’t know chupacabra already, the myth surfaced in the mid-90’s or so, when livestock, especially goats, began being found dead and ensanguinated, with puncture marks on their necks. The legend of el chupacabra (the goatsucker) has since migrated to other, especially Latin American countries. I just saw a headline today, suggesting people have captured video footage of the elusive chupacabra. Looks like a dog with a big nose to me.
So that is the story of Euphilomedes chupacabra. Perhaps one day, you too can discover a new species by dipping a bucket in the water. They are everywhere, and just think of the fun you can have at your next cocktail party. Oh, and by the way, Euphilomedes chupacabra does not suck the blood of goats, unlike the beetle Agra sasquatch, which really does have big feet. I’m not sure about its sister species, Agra yeti.