Despite years of research on various examples of deep-sea crown jelly known as Atollgenetic confirmation of a new species now prompts biologists to redefine at least one of the key characteristics of the genus or, perhaps, create an entirely new genus.
Descriptions of the Freshly Crowned Atolla reynoldsi have zoologists from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) in the United States who believe they may now need to invent a whole new branch of the family tree for him and some of the new species’ closest relatives.
Also known as coronal jellyfish, Atoll typically less than 10 centimeters (4 inches) in diameter, are blood red in color, with a bell edged with bumpy ridges and coiled tentacles, earning them their “crowned” title.
Bioluminescent jellies are found in abundance away from sunlight in most marine waters around the world. When biologists wanted to take a photo of a giant squid last year, it was actually the signature flash of one of these jellyfish that they copied as a decoy.
Tracking life above sea level is hard enough work for biologists. But when an animal hides hundreds of meters (thousands of feet) below the surface of the ocean, it takes perseverance and technology to collect even the most basic details of the most common benthic beasts.
MBARI has collected a wealth of information on the characteristics of these stunningly beautiful animals over the past decades through its fleet of deep-sea research vessels.
Thanks to the efforts of MBARI, 10 species have been officially assigned to the genus. Three stand out as being easy to tell apart, while the others require an expert eye to tell them apart.
But one thing that biologists thought they could rely on as Atoll signature trait was a single super long tentacle trailing from her curls coif.
Stretching up to six times the diameter of its bell, these appendages are believed to be a tool for snagging ghostly threads from “stingy” siphonophores that float on the high seas.
Over the past 15 years, however, three types of Atoll have sometimes been spotted without a distinguished tentacle, leaving researchers scratching their heads over how reliable their checklist is for classifying some of the most ambiguous examples of these animals.
The official recognition of Atolla reynoldsi as a genetically distinct species, its own unique characteristics—including its relatively large size of around 13 centimeters—must either be considered characteristics of the existing genus or considered part of a new genus.
It’s a decision biologists routinely face when new specimens – both extant and extinct – come to light, calling into question the usefulness of existing boundaries between branches of life.
With two more potential new crown jellyfish species awaiting classification evidence, it may soon be time for a new royal lineage to flourish in the depths of our oceans.
“These remarkable new frosts underscore how much we have yet to learn about the deep sea,” says George Matsumoto, Senior Education and Research Specialist at MBARI.
“With every dive into the depths of Monterey Bay, we learn something new.”
This research was published in Animals.