Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Ostra-blog 3 – How we discovered chupacabra

I’m having a lot of fun with these ostra-blogs, which I started on a whim to increase awareness of my study taxon, Ostracoda (here are links to the first two posts: 1, 2). There are so many ostracods and related stories I want to share, that I hardly know where to begin. I’ve also decided to restrict myself to one ostra-blog per week, so as not to interfere with my ever-so-important other activities, like reviewing papers and sitting in on meetings. Therefore, if there are roughly 30000 ostracod species (fossil plus living), I will finish telling you about all of them by about my 600th birthday, unless of course new species are described by then. In any event, I have reached a decision on this week’s ostra-blog. Since new species have been the subject of some recent blogs, and since I just saw chupacabra on the internet news, today, I will tell you the story of how my lab discovered and described the ostracod species Euphilomedes chupacabra. (Here is a link to the paper).

On new species

First of all, a word or two about new species: As relayed by The Other 95%, there is little academic reward for describing a species this day in age. Today, scientists are judged by their citation rate, and to a lesser but often still significant extent, by the number of grant dollars they pull in. True, in some cases describing a new species - for example by naming it after, say, Neil Young or Steven Colbert - can bring media attention. But media attention does not translate to grant dollars, and probably doesn’t usually increase citation rate.

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 Japan where people fish, all the time. The coral patch reefs of Australia and Belize sound exotic, and they are fantastically beautiful, but I can get there from here in a day or so in air conditioned comfort while listening to science podcasts. My best case in point for how understudied ostracods are brings me (finally!) to the story of E. chupacabra. I found this species by dipping a bucket in the water on the pier of a marine lab!

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 Florida and Belize (and a species sure to be on a future ostra-blog). Skogsbergia come to baited traps, so I deployed a trap off the pier of the marine lab. While waiting for the animals to come to the trap, I dipped my bucket in the water. To my great surprise, I saw an ostracod buzzing around in the water like Michael Phelps on steroids. Ostracods are quite small, but they have a pretty distinctive swimming behavior (myodocopids at least). Unlike other things of their size, like copepods, ostracods swim very smoothly. I sucked it up into a pipette, and brought it back into the lab. I couldn’t believe my eyes, I suspected immediately I had a Euphilomedes!!

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 Caribbean before, so I knew I almost certainly had a new species on my hands. It turns out that it was a species unknown to science, and I had discovered it literally by dipping my bucket in the water in a place where hundreds of marine biologists, and even ostracodologists had passed; a marine lab of a major university. Still, it would be a few years before we mounted the expedition to find more individuals of this new animal, and before we’d decide on its name.

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 California. California water is cold, and the animals do not develop very quickly. I suspect that the new species from the warm waters of Puerto Rico might develop faster, and therefore be better suited as a lab animal. Second, I thought it would be fun to go back to Puerto Rico, and to take a couple students along to help me find out more about this species. The National Science Foundation kindly provided money for an REU (research experience for undergraduates) supplement, which would cover travel expenses for two students go to PR for a month. In addition, they would spend some time in the lab back in Santa Barbara beginning to describe the species. I think it is great to get students out doing field work, where they can gain a real appreciation for the wonder of the natural world. Our first order of business was to find more of this animal.

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 ). 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.


Kevin Zelnio said...

I love this post! Great story. I am waiting for species to get published (accepted, just waiting till it comes out) to talk about them. If you ever need another person to accompany you to Puerto Rico, give me a holler ;)

And thanks for highlighting my taxonomy post! Have you seen the new journal ZooKeys? Its OA and only costs 11 euros/page.

Cath@VWXYNot? said...

Great story and I love the name!

Is there a douglasadamsi yet? If not, why not?

Todd Oakley said...

cath - I like the Douglas Adams idea. Perhaps I can use it for our next species - unless I decide to sell the naming rights on Ebay.

Kevin - ZooKeys looks great. Open taxonomy is by far the way to go, I see all positives and no negatives. I encouraged my postdoc to put a taxonomic paper in PLoS-1, which she did earlier this year. At that time, we discussed starting an OA taxonomy journal, and how great it would be. I'm glad to see folks have taken the lead on this. I think the bottom line is that some taxonomists need to relax a bit and step into the 21st century. Some get too hung up on the old rules, which is increasing the impediment to describing species. Especially with the ability to add to a paper over the years (a la Plos-1) some description is better than no description. Some ostracod taxonomists push for descriptions of a calibur that take months to years for one or a few species. This is just not practical anymore, in my opinion.

Anna's Plos1 paper

Cath@VWXYNot? said...

Can you cite this blogpost in your paper so I can prove to my friends that it was my idea?!

coffee fiend said...

out of all the mythical, blood sucking creatures out there, the Chupacabra is almost certainly the sneakiest

LOM said...

Totally agree with you. Now, I´m checking myodocopids from SE and SW sectors from the Gulf of Mexico and it´s very difficult to find out which species we have because their descriptions are old, incomplete or they can be new. But, we go back to the same point, since there are a few specialist in myodocopid ostracodes in this area with whom I can corroborate species. Lorena OM.

LOM said...

Totally agree with you. Now, I´m checking myodocopids from SE and SW sectors from the Gulf of Mexico and it´s very difficult to find out which species we have because their descriptions are old, incomplete or they can be new. But, we go back to the same point, since there are a few specialist in myodocopid ostracodes in this area with whom I can corroborate species. Lorena OM.