Revealing New Species

In 34 years of deep-sea research, MBARI has uncovered 22 previously unknown species of siphonophores. Meet a few of our most fascinating finds.

By Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute

Resomia ornicephala by MBARIMonterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute

Historically, gelatinous animals have been challenging to study. Their delicate nature makes them difficult to collect, especially from the ocean’s depths. By using deep-diving robots—remotely operated vehicles, or ROVs—MBARI and our collaborators are revealing the dazzling diversity of delicate drifters that lies beneath the surface.

Blue siphonophore, Gymnopraia lapislazula (2005) by MBARIMonterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute

Gymnopraia lapislazula
Haddock, Dunn, and Pugh, 2005

In 2005, MBARI and our collaborators described two unique siphonophores from the twilight depths of Monterey Bay. The two species aren’t closely related, but both have striking colors. Gymnopraia lapislazula has sparkling blue iridescence when illuminated with white light.

Green caterpillar siphonophore, Lilyopsis fluoracantha (2012) by MBARIMonterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute

Lilyopsis fluoracantha
Haddock, Dunn, and Pugh, 2005

The second species, Lilyopsis fluoracantha, becomes bright green when lit by blue light. Scientists think that the siphonophore’s fluorescent proteins interact with the chemical pathway involved with creating bioluminescence. The proteins shift the color to a green glow.

Red siphonophore, Marrus claudanielis (2003) by MBARIMonterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute

Marrus claudanielis
Dunn, Pugh, and Haddock, 2005

Marrus claudanielis is an especially delicate drifter. It’s sensitive to light, so if we’re not careful, the lights on MBARI’s robotic submersibles can cause the animal to shed its body parts. With observations off both coasts of North America, this species appears to be widely distributed, but has simply eluded scientists in the past—likely due to its fragile nature. 

Siphonophore, Resomia dunni (2015) by MBARIMonterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute

Resomia dunni
Pugh and Haddock, 2009

Resomia dunni has a few large stinging arrays that drop off very easily. We don’t yet know what prey these special structures are targeting. This species is named after MBARI collaborator Casey Dunn, for his contributions to siphonophore phylogeny, taxonomy, and biology.

Siphonophore, Resomia ornicephala (2005) by MBARIMonterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute

Resomia ornicephala
Pugh and Haddock, 2009

Resomia ornicephala has lures on its tentacles that look like leaves. This species is found in a narrow depth range around 210 meters (690 feet). Researchers think their depth range is related to the fluorescence of their lures—the dim blue light at those depths would make an excellent backdrop for the fluorescence to be visible to krill, their primary prey.

Siphonophore, Resomia persica (2017) by MBARIMonterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute

Resomia persica
Pugh and Haddock, 2009

Resomia persica has very delicate tentacles. It must capture zooplankton using a powerful sting rather than hauling them in with strength.

Siphonophore, Sphaeronectes christiansonae by Steve HaddockMonterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute

Sphaeronectes christiansonae
Pugh, 2009

Some of the most simple and elegant siphonophores are in the genus Sphaeronectes. This group has no float and only one swimming bell. Video footage from MBARI’s robotic submersibles helped scientists describe three new species of Sphaeronectes. S. christiansonae was named after MBARI researcher Lynne Christianson and S. haddocki after MBARI scientist Steve Haddock. S. tiburonae was named after one of MBARI’s submersibles which collected many of the specimens for study.

Woolly siphonophore, Apolemia lanosa (2005) by MBARIMonterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute

Apolemia lanosa
Siebert, Pugh, Haddock, and Dunn, 2013

Members of the genus Apolemia are some of the longest animals on the planet. This makes it a challenge to collect more than fragments. A. lanosa was named for its shaggy appearance—the species name “lanosa” derives from Latin “lana” and means “woolly.”

Red-grooved siphonophore, Apolemia rubriversa (2003) by MBARIMonterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute

Apolemia rubriversa
Siebert, Pugh, Haddock, and Dunn, 2013

For decades, there was only one species name that was used for all Apolemia. The description of A. lanosa and A. rubriversa by MBARI researchers and our collaborators is a first step toward organizing the full diversity of this group of siphonophores.

Angler siphonophore, Erenna sirena by MBARIMonterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute

Erenna sirena
Pugh and Haddock, 2016

Siphonophores in the genus Erenna are fish predators. They are only found quite deep, where fish might be scarce. To improve their ability to attract prey, Erenna species use glowing bioluminescent lures, which they flick and wriggle to wriggle to entice fish. The lures are different between each species, and are the easiest way to distinguish them.

Shaggy siphonophore, Erenna insidiator (2015) by MBARIMonterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute

Erenna insidiator
Pugh and Haddock, 2016

Erenna insidiator is a rare find—MBARI has only spotted this species twice. We still don’t know a lot about its biology, but believe it ambushes its prey with elaborate lures like other siphonophores in the genus Erenna.

Siphonophore, Kephyes hiulcus by Steve HaddockMonterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute

Kephyes hiulcus
Grossmann and Lindsay, 2017

Sometimes, sorting out species names is more of a history project than a biology project. This species was first discussed in the literature in 1861, and given five different names over the years.

Siphonophore, Tottonphyes enigmatica (2010) by MBARIMonterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute

Tottonphyes enigmatica
Pugh, Dunn, and Haddock, 2018

When researchers first saw Tottonophyes, they weren’t quite sure which other siphonophores were its closest relatives. It had features that were between two of the known groups, inspiring the name T. enigmatica. The genus is a tribute to A.K. Totton, who described many species and helped synthesize knowledge about siphonophores. 

Siphonophore, Kephyes ovata (2005) by MBARIMonterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute

We’re always learning more about the deep sea

In 34 years of deep-sea exploration, we’ve still just barely scratched the surface in understanding life in the largest living space on Earth. Each dive into the inky depths reveals something new and unexpected. 

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The mission of MBARI is to advance marine science and technology to understand a changing ocean. To learn more, visit mbari.org and follow MBARI on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Tumblr, Twitter, and YouTube.

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