24 October 2010

The International Year of Biodiversity: Two Oceans Aquarium describes four new species

David Vaughan
Heterocotyle tokoloshei, the tokolosh worm

David Vaughan is the Two Oceans Aquarium’s aquatic animal health researcher. He conducts research into various fish parasites and other health issues affecting aquatic animals at the Aquarium.

More blogs by David:

•    Olive passes away unexpectedly
•    Are we trading our carbon footprint for a mercury one?
•    Tokolosh discovered at the Aquarium!

The United Nations declared 2010 the International Year of Biodiversity, celebrating life and our amazing biodiversity and its relevance and importance too. It is therefore fitting that four species – new to science – were discovered right here at Two Oceans Aquarium and the findings published in 2010.

It is interesting to consider that we are still discovering new organisms in this day and age. It’s certainly easy to think that we have a relatively good idea of the other organisms sharing our planet with us. But the truth is that new taxonomic families, sub-families, genera and species are being discovered globally almost on a daily basis and our perspective of the true magnitude of our biodiversity therefore remains underestimated. Sadly, our impact on biodiversity is also underestimated.

As a taxonomist I have been trained to “look a little closer”, as it were. My microscope offers a window on an amazing world of micro-warfare, alien-like beings and strange landscapes – the stuff of sci-fi movies. I am most fortunate to often have the very first opportunity to study and document new organisms that have never been observed before. My focus on aquatic animal health is not unique but in South Africa there are only a handful of scientists studying aquatic parasites.

So what is so important about a parasite anyway? In my opinion, it is this very question that highlights my previous suggestion of how little we actually know. Who would have thought that there are more parasitic organisms than free-living organisms on Earth? Food for thought?

Puns aside, this mode of life is probably one of the most important and governs an integral connection that links all biodiversity.

Four new monogeneans (multicellular parasitic flatworms) were discovered and described here at the Aquarium this year. Although not all monogeneans pose a health problem to their fishy hosts, some of them do have the potential to be problematic, so this group of wrigglies gets much of my attention.

The new species, Gyrodactylus eyipayipi, Heterocotyle tokoloshei, Neoheterocotyle robii and Myxinidocotyle eptatreti all contribute to the understanding of this group of parasites in public aquaria and all of them represent South African firsts.

A fun component of taxonomy is of course giving the beasties a name. This is done within the framework laid out in the International Code for Zoological Nomenclature. Usually, the species name is descriptive of a prominent or unique feature, but sometimes species can be named in honour of someone who has contributed scientific knowledge.

This is called a patronym and effectively immortalises that name in science. One of the species above, Neoheterocotyle robii was named in honour of Dr Rob Leslie and Rob Cooper from the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in acknowledgement of their assistance in sampling for this and other parasites.

Gyrodactylus eyipayipi, from the greater pipefish, was named after the isiXhosa word for pipe, Heterocotyle tokoloshei after the mythical tokolosh and Myxinidocotyle eptatreti after its hagfish host genus, Eptatretus.

There are several more new species in the queue awaiting description and 2011 will be equally productive – an ongoing testament to the commitment of the Two Oceans Aquarium to further our knowledge of our local biodiversity and to give something back, however small.

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