Texas AM-Galveston professor discovers new species of marine life

Posted By News On August 27, 2009 - 8:10pm

Two tiny worms much smaller than a rice grain and a strange crustacean that has no eyes and poisonous fangs are among several new species of marine life discovered in an underwater cave by a Texas A&M University at Galveston researcher, who has had one of the new species named after him.

Tom Iliffe, professor of marine biology and one of the world's foremost cave researchers, was part of an international team that discovered the new species in a mile-long underwater cave in Lanzarote, Canary Islands, located in the Atlantic off the coast of North Africa.

Their findings are published in the current issue of "Marine Biodversity." The research project was funded by the National Science Foundation.

Iliffe, along with researchers from Pennsylvania State University, the University of La Laguna in Spain and two German universities – the University of Veterinary Medicine in Hanover and the University of Hamburg – found the new species while exploring the Tunnel de la Atlantida, the world's longest submarine lava tube.

Iliffe says the new creatures were found deep inside the underwater cave and in total darkness. It's believed the cave was formed by a volcanic eruption about 20,000 years ago.

"The small worms we discovered were found in a large, conical mound of white sand, which had filtered down from a hole in the cave ceiling," Iliffe says of the new discovery. "We collected several samples of the sand and when we examined it later, we found these new species."

The team named one of the new worms for Iliffe, dubbing it Sphaerosyllis iliffei. "Its tiny body has no eyes or color and is the first cave-adapted species from the worm family Syllidae," he points out.

"Like other cave-adapted crustaceans and worms inhabiting this lava tube, they likely colonized underwater caves and cracks in older rocks on the island and invaded the water of the lava tube sometime after its formation 20,000 years ago."

The other newly found worm is named after local artist Cesar Manrique, who designed the touristic portion of the cave which divers must transit in order to reach the underwater portions of the lava tube. This section is named the Atlantida Tunnel, literally the "tunnel to Atlantis."

The new species of crustacean discovered by the team is a member of the class Remipedia, believed to be among the most primitive of all types of crustaceans. It has been named Speleonectes (which means "cave swimmer") atlantida after the cave system it inhabits. The remipede is about one inch in length, has no eyes, its head has specialized mouthparts and venom injecting fangs, has a body with 20-24 segments, and because it was found in the total blackness of the cave, has a body that is almost transparent, Iliffe notes.

Because similar species of remipedes have been found in the northern Caribbean and also in Australia, Iliffe and the other team members believe Remipedia is one of the oldest crustacean groups on Earth.

"It likely had its origins during early stages of the formation of the Atlantic Ocean millions of years ago when the continents of Europe/Africa and North/South America were in close proximity," he explains.

"So it's thought remipedes could be at least 200 million years old, a time when dinosaurs roamed the Earth."

Resembling a centipede, remipedes have hollow-tip fangs that inject a venom potent enough to kill small shrimp or other marine life, but not toxic enough to harm humans, Iliffe says. Remipedia are also hermaphrodites – they contain both male and female reproductive organs in the same individual. Iliffe has discovered several hundred species of marine life over the past 30 years and has probably explored more underwater caves – at least 1,500 – than anyone in the world, examining such caves on islands and continental margins in the Caribbean, Indo-Pacific, Mediterranean and North Atlantic.

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