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Finding a needle in a haystack: two new species of octocorals discovered in the Pacific Ocean

The vast expanse of the Earth’s oceans makes finding a new species like finding a needle in a haystack. In fact, finding a needle in a haystack may be easier than finding a new species of octocoral in the Pacific Ocean. But Gary Williams with the California Academy of Sciences has recently found not only one but two new species, including a new genus of octocoral. In a recent paper published in the journal Zookeys, Williams provides a taxonomic assessment of two new colorful species of soft coral and a new genus to accommodate a bright red sea fan.

To date, more than 3,000 species of octocoral have been described. Octocoral have a unique symmetrical design, with eight tentacles and eight divisions in the body cavity. Like many other groups of corals, octocoral have a complex lifecycle, which includes a plankton phase in which they move about until they begin their stationary polyp phase. During the polyp phase, they live in complex colonies. Their colonies can be found in the oceans of the world in many different shapes, colors, and sizes. The octocoral Williams describes reside in the cold waters of the west coast of North America.

Pale-orange polyps of the new species Cryptophyton jedsmithi. Photo by: Jeff Goddard

The west coast of North America is thought to be well explored–with an abundance of manuals and field guides available–making the new species described by Williams all the more surprising.

“It is remarkable that in a region previously thought to be as familiar and well known as the west coast of North America – with its numerous large urban centers and major marine laboratories – revisionary systematics are not only still possible, but essential for our understanding of global biodiversity,” Williams says.

Pink polyps of new species. Photo by: Marc Chamberlain

Pink polyps of new species. Photo by: Marc Chamberlain

Cryptophyton jedsmithiis the first species described in the paper. This pale orange soft coral was found under a boulder in the low rocky intertidal zone in San Diego, California.

Another new species (Gersemia lambi) was found in the shallow subtidal region from Alaska to central British Columbia, Canada at a depth of 9-20 meters. The color of the colony is pink to reddish with orange oral discs.

Photograph of new genus Chromoplexaura at 83 meters in depth. Photo by: NOAA

The study also describes a new genus for a bright red sea fan (Chromoplexaura marki), providing the species with a valid taxonomic designation for the first time. This species was previously included in a tropical Indo-Pacific genus, but the new genus inhabits the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary near San Francisco, California.

It is these types of unexpected discoveries in presumably well-explored areas of the world that keep expanding our understanding of global biodiversity. Finding a needle in a haystack can be a daunting task, but the diligent work of scientists around the world continue to uncover the hidden diversity of Earth.

CITATION: Williams GC (2013) New Taxa and revisionary systematics of alcyonacean octocorals from the Pacific Coast of North America (Cnidaria, Anthozoa). ZooKeys 283: 15.

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