A new species of Caribbean clam shrimp has been discovered in the unassuming pond of the Herman E. Moore Golf Course at the University of the Virgin Islands’ St. Thomas campus, according to a UVI press release.
Drs. D. Christopher Rogers, from the University of Kansas, and Edwin Cruz-Rivera, from UVI’s Department of Biological Sciences, detailed their unexpected discovery in an article published last month in the peer-reviewed journal Zoological Studies.
The new species, which researchers named Eulimnadia insularis – literally translated to “pleasant pond goddess from an island” – was originally reported in 2003 and identified as a Texas clam shrimp. However, after comparing the morphology of the clam shrimp’s eggs to other collections, researchers Rogers and Cruz-Rivera determined it to be a new species.
According to a UVI press release, the discovery came about as Cruz-Rivera and Rogers collaborated on a project to inventory freshwater animals on the island. “Relatively little is known about what freshwater animals are found on St. Thomas compared to St. Croix, St. John and Puerto Rico,” said Cruz-Rivera.
The new species is part of an ancient group of small freshwater crustaceans with fossils dating back to the Devonian Period 390 million years ago.
The common name, clam shrimp, aptly describes the species as it has a translucent hinged two-halved carapace, or shell, in which the animal can encase its body if it feels threatened. Additionally, the clam shrimp exhibits many remarkable adaptations under its shell.
“These curious animals live in environments that completely dry out seasonally. This would normally kill any population of small critters that breathe in water,” wrote Cruz-Rivera and Rogers. “Clam shrimps, however, have various tricks up their sleeve … or carapace. For starters, most populations are hermaphroditic, so every surviving adult individual in a pond can produce eggs and contribute to the next generation.”
The eggs themselves also display a remarkable capacity to thrive. With their intricate patterns of ridges and crests, these eggs can lay dormant in dried-out soil for decades, and still be viable for when the next rains come to fill their pool, according to the UVI press release.
While being sexually independent and drought tolerant, clam shrimp can also capitalize quickly on brief rainfall. In Socotra Island, located in the Arabian Sea, a relative of the clam shrimp called Branchipodopsis relicta, can go from egg to reproductive adult in only four days, making it one of the fastest-growing multicellular organisms on earth, the release states.
The finding underscores the amount of potentially untapped biodiversity awaiting discovery in the Caribbean. “It is very surprising that we would find a new species on a university campus that has been in use for decades and has a thriving biology program,” said Cruz-Rivera.
Drs. Cruz-Rivera and Rogers would like to see more students get involved in the study of freshwater systems. “There is still a lot to be learned about what organisms live in our ponds, guts and even temporary habitats, such as bromeliads, which contain their own unique organisms,” said Cruz-Rivera. “If you are trying to preserve an ecosystem, it is difficult to do if you don’t know exactly what you are trying to preserve.”
The two scientists will expand their research over the next five years as part of the Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research Ridge to Reef grant, which aims to address the impacts of changing environmental conditions on small island social-ecological systems.
A link to Rogers and Cruz-Rivera’s article can be found here.