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New Jellyfish Species Found

Bijal P. Trivedi
for National Geographic Today
May 5, 2003
 
In the Monterey Submarine Canyon at depths of 2,100 feet (645 meters) and more, is a cold, dark world inhabited by strange creatures including vampire squid and football fish. But now researchers have identified one of the strangest of all, a new species of jellyfish.

They named the new species granrojo, Spanish for "big red." It's a predator—a gelatinous blood-red cannonball between two and three feet (60 and 90 centimeters) across that floats through the deep ocean waters quietly devouring prey.

The creature is described as the first member of a new subfamily of jellyfish.

The massive jelly is particularly unusual because it lacks tentacles. From its giant, red, bell-shaped body protrude between four and seven short, thick arms.

"The discovery of Big Red is a little like finding the first member of the cat family," says Larry Madin, a marine biologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. "It is a pretty interesting find."


"We know almost nothing about it. What it does. What it eats. What eats it," says George Matsumoto, a jelly specialist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California, who named the species.

"It's very large, it's a predator, and we assume that it must play an important role in the deep sea," says Matsumoto. It's also pretty common. It has been spotted more than two dozen times off the coasts of California, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii.

"When I first saw a picture of Big Red, it was just a matter of seconds before I realized that this was something very different," says Matsumoto. He and his colleagues have published their discovery and description of the new species online in the journal Marine Biology.

New Life Forms

In the last 20 years, using scuba, manned and unmanned submersibles, scientists have discovered more than 50 new species of jellies. Madin, an expert on jellies, has discovered more than half a dozen species.

When scientists discover a new life form they assign it a formal scientific name which describes how closely it is related to other creatures. Each name has seven components: Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus and Species. Kingdom is the broadest category; species is the most specific. Animals within each of these categories share certain characteristics. All domestic housecats, for example, are members of the same species. Lions and tigers each belong to different species, but share enough similarities that they belong to the same genus: Panthera.

But more differences imply that a new specimen may belong to a new category altogether.

For example, all cats—lions, tigers, cheetahs, leopards and housecats—belong to the family Felidae; all dogs belong to Canidae. Finding a new subfamily of jellyfish is like finding something as different as these two families are to each other.

"As you go up higher through the taxonomy, through the classification, it gets harder and harder to get new things," says Matsumoto. "(Big Red) is not only a new species but it represents a new genus and a new sub-family."

In the scientific literature Big Red is now known as Tiburonia granrojo. The genus Tiburonia is named for the remotely operated submersible, Tiburon, that captured Big Red on video in 1998. The name of the subfamily is Tiburoniinae.

Like a Human with Four Arms

The most obvious sign that Big Red was really new was that it lacked tentacles; whereas most jellies use a net of fine tentacles to catch their food.

Only about three species of jelly identified to date do without these appendages—these are wispy, very delicate creatures that are all closely related. By contrast, Big Red is robust.

The feature that researchers find most intriguing is a collection of short stumps protruding from Big Red's surface—so-called "oral arms" that might be used for feeding. What mystifies Matsumoto is why some of these jellies have four arms, whereas others have six or seven.

"It is like finding one human with four arms, another with three, and another with two," says Matsumoto.

The jelly first came to the attention of Matsumoto in 1998 when a geologist colleague showed him a video and photographs taken during an exploratory mission around the underwater Gumdrop seamount, northwest of Monterey and about 75 miles west of the San Francisco coastline. Going back through video footage from the institute the scientists found sightings of the creature dating back to 1993.

The video was taken by the remotely operated sub called Tiburon—vehicles of its type are now becoming the mainstay of underwater exploration.

But it was almost another three years before scientists could collect a specimen of the creature. Big Red is so large that Matsumoto and his colleagues have only found one specimen that was small enough to collect—a little jelly about six inches (15 centimeters) long.

Tracking Big Red

"It took us a very long time to get a specimen. We don't like to publish descriptions of new species unless we have something to give to a museum," says Matsumoto.

The specimen was caught literally in Matsumoto's backyard—the Monterey Submarine Canyon, which at 13,000 feet (4000 meters) is the deepest canyon on the West Coast.

The world of Big Red is cold and dark—all sightings to date have been between 2,100 and 4,900 feet (645 and 1,497 meters) where the water temperature hovers between a chilly 37 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit (2.6 and 4.9 degrees Celsius).

At this depth the last rays of sunlight fail to penetrate the water and the only lights comes from life forms that produce twinkles and sparkles of primarily blue and green bioluminescence.

Much basic research remains to be done to solve mysteries surrounding the life of Big Red. How long do these jellies live? When and where do they feed?

Unlike many other jellyfish, which are transparent, the red pigment of this jelly prevents the researchers from peering into the creature's gut to see what it had for lunch.

"Other jellies have tentacles covered in stinging cells whereas this jelly must have very different feeding behavior," Madin points out. "What I would like to know is how Big Red eats and what it eats."

Matsumoto hopes to continue exploring the deep sea and collect more specimens of Big Red—perhaps some larger ones. He is also developing a tiny acoustic transponder that could be implanted in the jelly and used to track it with an unmanned sub.



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