Thursday, October 17, 2013

New discoveries in unlikely places: the role of built spaces in ocean exploration

Recently, featured the Bobbit Worm (Eunice aphroditois) as their "Absurd Creature of the Week." Don't be fooled- there isn't a weekly column about absurd creatures (which would have been awesome); they just invented that column name to shame this awesome marine polychaete. It can't help it that it's a worm that snaps its prey in half and happens to also be both slightly adorable when young (rainbow colored) and then really repulsive when mature (10 feet long and slimy).

Yes, the bobbit worm is a little creepy because it's super dangerous to other fishes and such, but it is also creepy because it is mysterious. Who doesn't love a mystery?

This polychaete isn't often seen in the wild, so scientists know little about their life cycle, feeding habits, or breeding habits. What they do know has come, not from viewing these organisms in the wild, but in aquarium setting, sometimes accidentally.

Matt Simon at recounts the 2009 discovery of 'Barry', a bobbit worm discovered in a public aquarium in Cornwall, England after aquarists noticed the disappearance of fish, damaged coral, and the loss of bait and hooks left out overnight to catch whatever was disturbing the
aquarium inhabitants. Eventually, the aquarists dismantled the aquarium and found 'Barry' (pictured below) concealed in some coral. Surprise! They didn't really know how he'd gotten there, but guessed he was a tiny little stow-away when the coral was first introduced into the tank, and had rapidly developed into the awesome, if appallingly unattractive, specimen you see below.

My interest in this tale doesn't have much to do with the aesthetics of polychaetes, but instead stems from the fact that it is more common than people think to find these unintended guests in aquariums.

William Innes, an early luminary in the aquarium hobbyist field, often sent unknown fish specimens from his aquarium to Carl Hubbs and George Sprague Myers for identification. Hubbs and Innes published taxonomic information on the first known blind fish of the family characidae after Innes received some of the fishes from a fish dealer in Texas.

But there are similar stories to Barry- and my favorite comes from the Royal Botanical Society at Regent's Park, London in 1880. On June 10, 1880, Mr. Sowerby, the secretary of the RBS, spied something swimming, or more accurately, pulsing, in the giant Amazonian lily pad exhibit (Science, July 17, 1880, Lankester) . The Victoria Regia exhibit was quite popular at the RBS- these giant lilypads from South America were named after Queen Victoria (now known as Victoria amazonica). But whatever was in the shallow water wasn't supposed to be there, and had definitely not been placed there by an RBS member. (For a completely interesting paper on the naming controversy of Victoria amazonica check out Donald Opitz's paper in the British Journal for the History of Science)

What had made its way into the tank?

In 1880, Science published the first description of what they believed to be a new species, Limnocodium Victoria (later known as L. Sowerbyi and now known as Craspdacusta sowerbii), a fresh water jellyfish. This was huge, because a. no one had ever recorded jellies living in freshwater in the field and b. they had seemingly appeared out of nowhere. In fact, Sowerby stated that there hadn't been any new additions to the lilypad exhibit in months so the RBS was at a loss when pinpointing the origin of these jellies. What they surmised is that they had to have originated from the same water that the lily pads came from, and therefore probably came from the Guyana region in South America.

It was examined (by no less than George Romanes) and named, but researchers found it impossible to maintain in captivity and eventually all the specimens died and were preserved.

And then, it reappeared in the same tank of lily pads in 1888. This time, G. Herbert Fowler reported that the entire tank was covered in hydroids (a life cycle of jellyfish) but the origins and life cycle were still unclear" (Fowler, G.H. "Notes on the Hydroid Phase of Limnocodium sowerbyi." Quart. Jour. Micr. Sci.  30 (1890): 507)

A modern photograph of C. Sowerbii

After these initial descriptions of freshwater jellies at the RBS, they started to show up everywhere. In 1916, 1922, and 1924 Harrison Garman reported in Science finding large swarms in a creek in Kentucky.   In 1925, Frank Smith collected them in the Panama Canal Zone (also published in Science). By 1928, Charles M. Breder announced that the jelly had found its way into tanks at the New York Aquarium.

We now know that C. sowerbii is a hearty species of jelly native to China with a very special ability: it has a chitin-covered resting stage which allows it to survive in drought years. This ability means that it can be spread through mud or detritus without anyone knowing that they are transporting the specimen. And, it means it pops up in unexpected places, like the Royal Botanical Society. (This has become a bit of a problem as the fresh water jelly is now considered an invasive species- check out this article about its introduction to Israeli waters).

But, guess what: no matter how many times or how many places its been found, the first description stands. It continues to be named after the startled secretary of the Royal Botanical Society and the date of discovery is still listed as 1880.

Aquariums, both hobbyist and public, have continuously served as spaces containing undescribed and undiscovered organisms. We often don't think about these seemingly domesticated and constructed spaces as containing unknown entities, but they can and do often unveil new delights to the aquarists who might think they've seen it all (or at least that they know what they are working with). C. sowerbii and unexpected visitors like 'Barry' serve to remind us that built environments are still places of mystery and discovery.