In idea, Tim O’Hara had come to Paris to map the biodiversity of a faraway seamount. In apply, this meant sifting a plastic barrel of preserved brittle stars floating in 95 % ethanol.
For weeks, he sorted via frequent, five-armed species of echinoderms which are associated to starfish, lots of which he’d seen earlier than. “You get humdrum issues,” mentioned Dr. O’Hara, a senior curator at Museums Victoria in Australia.
One specimen Dr. O’Hara scooped from the bucket seemed in contrast to any brittle star he’d seen earlier than. It had a thorny nest of enamel and, fairly peculiarly, eight arms. “Brittle stars all the time have 5, a number of have six, and the very odd one has greater than 10,” he mentioned. “To immediately have eight arms? That was particular.”
Dr. O’Hara believes the echinoderm, which was collected on an earlier expedition to a seamount east of New Caledonia within the South Pacific, represents a completely new household of brittle stars that hails from an historical lineage relationship again to the Jurassic and survives to at the present time. He and different researchers described the species, Ophiojura exbodi, in a paper revealed Wednesday within the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
“If I discovered this factor, I simply would have died,” mentioned Christopher Mah, a researcher on the Smithsonian Nationwide Museum of Pure Historical past and skilled on sea stars, who reviewed the paper. “That factor is all enamel.”
After Dr. O’Hara took a genetic pattern from the toothy, eight-armed star, he put it in his “weirdo field,” the place he shops specimens that puzzle him. A phylogenetic evaluation revealed that the star’s singular lineage emerged within the Jurassic or late Triassic, roughly 160 million to 200 million years in the past.
“Wow,” Dr. O’Hara remembers considering. He then referred to as Ben Thuy, his longtime collaborator and a paleontologist on the Nationwide Museum of Pure Historical past, Luxembourg, about his eight-armed dilemma. He needed to know if Dr. Thuy knew of a equally formed star within the fossil file. Dr. Thuy responded: “Ship me a bit of its arm.”
Dr. O’Hara hand-delivered the arm section to Luxembourg. Dr. Thuy soaked the specimen in bleach to take away its flesh and coated it in an especially skinny layer of gold to make sure electrical conductivity so he may run it below a scanning electron microscope. The scans revealed the brittle star’s arm plates, which be part of collectively in a series to kind their inner skeleton; every had a pair of holes, a nerve gap and a muscle attachment gap. Collectively, the passageways bore an eerie resemblance to a selected set of nostrils.
“Pig snout articulations,” Dr. O’Hara mentioned. “That was our inner joke title, but it surely’s fairly descriptive.”
However Dr. Thuy was stumped. He wracked his mind for different pig-snouted holes he might need seen within the fossil file. Months later and nonetheless stumped, he observed a poster he had way back held on the wall of his workplace. It described some microfossils from the early Jurassic, together with arm plates of a fossilized brittle star with the exact same snouted openings. “It seemed precisely the identical,” he mentioned.
With solely a preserved specimen, the researchers don’t know the way the newly described brittle star makes use of its proliferation of spine-like enamel, and even what colour it was whereas alive. However they do know this: The brittle star has 1000’s of pig snouts on every arm, a veritable sty within the benthos.
It’s not frequent taxonomic apply to explain a brand new species from a single, imperfect specimen. However the researchers’ a number of traces of morphological and phylogenetic proof provide sturdy help for his or her claims, based on Dr. Mah.
“There isn’t a doubt that it’s a new species and the genetic evaluation suggesting a brand new household is robust,” Sabine Stöhr, an echinoderm biologist on the Swedish Museum of Pure Historical past who was not concerned with the analysis, wrote in an e mail.
The researchers have no idea the following time an expedition will go to New Caledonia and occur to choose up one other specimen of this seemingly uncommon brittle star. “We felt it was essential to return alongside now and alert folks to the truth that this animal exists,” Dr. O’Hara mentioned.
“This may very well be the final time we discover this animal,” Dr. Mah added.
In Dr. O’Hara’s eyes, the deep seamounts east of New Caledonia promise to be a dwelling museum of creatures which have survived because the time of dinosaurs. Right here, roughly one to 2 thousand ft underwater, scientists have discovered decapod crabs, flowerlike crinoids, nautiluses and different creatures as soon as believed to be extinct, Dr. Thuy mentioned.
“That’s the place the traditional issues are,” Dr. O’Hara mentioned, shortly after stepping out of the Zoom name for his every day temperature examine (no signs). He’s quarantining in a cabin in Darwin, Australia, till he units off on an expedition to the traditional seamounts close to the Christmas and Cocos Islands within the East Indian Ocean.
“Nobody’s taken a pattern from this space. It’s completely unknown,” he mentioned, including that he’s hoping to search out one other weirdo.