Finding a new animal does not always involve sifting through racks of specimens or trudging through uncharted wilds. Undescribed species can be found in more or less plain sight, if researchers ask the right questions.
“Putting these animals in the same group [as anemones] would be like classifying worms and snakes together because neither have legs.”
That’s how Museum Assistant Curator Estefania Rodríguez discovered that underwater creatures sporting six-foot-long tentacles were not the giant sea anemones they had been assumed to be, but an entirely new order of sea life.
First discovered in 2006, the species formerly known as Boloceroides daphneae was at first taken to be an oversized example of a sea anemone. When Rodríguez used genetic analysis to clarify the sea anemone family tree, however, the results showed that the two were not related. “Putting these animals in the same group would be like classifying worms and snakes together because neither have legs,” says Rodríguez.
The sea anemone lineage has been rather murky: a lack of genetic data in the past has meant that researchers and taxonomists have had to depend solely on morphological data to properly place anemone species in the tree of life. As a result, a species that looks like an anemone and acts like an anemone has generally been classified as an anemone.
“Anemones are very simple animals,” Rodríguez says. “Because of this, they are grouped together by their lack of characters—for example, the absence of a skeleton or the lack of colony-building, like you see in corals. So it wasn’t a huge surprise when we began to look at their molecular data and found that the traditional classifications of anemones were wrong.”
To get a better picture of how anemones are related, Rodríguez and her colleagues analyzed genetic data from 112 anemone species in a study published in PLOS ONE in May 2014. In doing so, they simplified the connections between animals, showing that what were thought to be four sub-orders of anemone were actually just two. Most surprising though, was their discovery that Boloceroides daphneae was not an anemone at all. Indeed, the animal was so genetically distinct from anything on record that it required the creation of an entire new order of Cnidaria. Now renamed Relicanthus daphneae, it is currently the sole member of this newly established order, though Rodríguez expects it will have company sooner than later.
“Although we’ve long known about the existence of this giant animal, it’s only in recent years that we’re really starting to understand where it fits into the tree of life,” Rodríguez says. “So imagine what else is still out there to discover.”
This work was partially supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation under Grant No. EF-0531763 to Daly, the Lerner Gray Fund for Marine Research to Rodríguez, the Louis V. Gerstner, Jr., Gerstner Family Foundation and the Gerstner Scholars Program to Brugler, and the Chilean FONDECYT project under number 1131039 to Häussermann.