Sunday, March 20, 2005

360: New Fairy Shrimp Species

New Fairy Shrimp Species Found in Idaho (

Dana Quinney and a colleague, Jay Weaver, first noticed the carnivorous shrimp in 1996. It took them nearly 9 years to compare the animal to the existing species and realize they had something entirely different.

"If you're just a little biologist like me, you're kind of a generalist," she said. "Many species of fairy shrimp look very much alike and it not only takes an expert but it takes an expert and a good microscope to tell them apart. This one is really, really, really different from all the other species in the world."

The new species has several spines on its front legs, and each spine is covered with several more, even smaller spines. The belly of the shrimp is covered with patches of Velcro-like spikes, enabling it to stick to and store up to four smaller fairy shrimp of different species - its prey. The new species also have a unique long, tapered and forked tail and the males have much longer antennas than other fairy shrimp.

It's no wonder that the animals were only recently discovered, Quinney said. They prefer to live in the opaque, brown pools known as playas that only occur during good water years.
Systematic research like this reveals new parts of the world that we never knew existed. The part quoted here shows the complexity, challenges and excitement of the research.

I spent a while working on the systematics of Philippine rodents, looking through a scope at their penises. Too some people, that would be a bad summer, but it drew me deeper into biology. I was amazed to see drawers and drawers of new species, jars full of alcohol preserved specimens of new species. They were piling up, waiting for someone with the time to catalog them and describe them.

We need more biologists to do that work. The generation of biologists who have presided over museum collections is approaching retirement, and there aren't being replaced. The knowledge they have isn't being preserved.

Anyone who enjoys this stuff should grab a chunk of it and get to work. The world is a complex and beautiful place, and systematists are at the leading edge of describing the stupendous diversity of the world.

You could do worse.