The curiosity about nature that drives us to be scientists gets a particular boost when we find something we haven’t seen before – even if it is just a few inches long. This happened to me yesterday when we were sampling a station in the northern Bering Sea.
Under marginal weather conditions we deployed the bottom trawl. Our team was laughing when we saw that the trawl was coming up covered with what looked like spaghetti hanging from its ropes, a bit like tinsel on a Christmas tree. But we knew this was an animal, a Bryozoa (moss animal) that lives on the seafloor and can form long yellow-tan strands that look literally like thick spaghetti.
We started sorting the trawl into the different species, diligently separating the string-like Bryozoa from other animals like crabs and snails and worms. That’s when I noticed that some of the Bryozoa had something soft and fleshy attached to them. At a closer look I found …. well, I am not sure what it is! The best I can say at this point is that it most likely belongs to the phylum (a broad level of taxonomic classification) of the Cnidaria, a common group that contains as different animals as anemones, jellyfish, corals, and many others.
Spread out, the mystery organism looks like a string with many small polyps, which at the bottom part look more developed than on the top end. My guess is that the lower part of the colony is reproductive. At the bottom end the mystery colony seems to attach to a substrate by many thin strings. We found five of these colonies in our trawl catch and all were attached to the stringy Bryozoa. Not knowing anything more about our mystery colony, we don’t know if they always attach to this Bryozoa or if that just happened to be a suitable and common substrate at this particular site.
Of course, we took samples and preserved the organism so we can do various analyses when we get home. We can do a more thorough morphological investigation, and we can also do genetic analyses to see if it or a close relative is described from elsewhere. For these purposes we work with the Smithsonian Institute where you can find a large number of highly-skilled taxonomists that also have an amazing reference collection at their hands for comparison.
Finding something you have never seen before, and are not even certain what it is in the most general terms, does not happen very often when you have worked in a region for decades. As a scientist, this is very exciting, no matter how unassuming our little critter looks. Once we know more about it, we may be able to tell if it just occurs in clumps in a small region and we just happened to come across one of those regions. Or maybe it is known from other regions and is making its way over to our study region. Until then, the mystery and the detective work continues.