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A group of scientists, led by Rachel Collin, have found a group of microscopic creatures that could be totally new to science. The small obstacle they face is to determine what type of animal they have discovered, since they are larvae that look completely different in their adult stage.
The little known animals in question are called foronids (Phoronide). Adults are anchored in sediments or rocks or corals, building a chitin tube to protect their soft bodies, while their heads are crowned with tentacles.
These animals do not live very deep (about 400 meters) and can be found in most of the world’s oceans. Its adult size ranges between 2 and 20 centimeters in length. But that they are known in detail, as adults, does not mean that it is easy to link them to their larval stage. These little ones don’t look much like their adult parents. They float across the seas, are microscopic and have small tentacles topped by a domed hood. Some have yellow spots, while others are transparent and their internal fluids can be seen.
“The global diversity of small and rare marine animals, such as foronids, is greatly underestimated,” explains Collin in a statement. “We don’t know what animals are there, let alone we know what their role in the world’s oceans could be.”
To try to shed more light on the matter, Collin and his team collected a bunch of foronid larvae. The most reliable method to find out is to compare their DNA with that of adult foronides. To do this, they collected 23 larvae of foronids from the Bay of Panama on the Pacific coast, and 29 from Bocas del Toro on the Caribbean coast. They sequenced their DNA and compared it with the information of adult foronids stored in the GenBank DNA database.
The results, published in Invertebrate Biology, allowed us to distinguish three different foronids from Panama Bay and four from Bocas del Toro. These seven had a DNA different from any other in GenBank, which contains the DNA of 75 percent of the recognized adult foronid species.
DNA sequencing for a larva failed, which means it could also be an unknown species, which brings the total of potential new species collected by the team to eight.
“Due to the cryptic lifestyles of the foronids, adults are very difficult to find,” adds Michael Boyle, co-author of the study. “However, the presence of their larval forms in the plankton confirms that they are here, established and reproducing.”