A Texas A&M University at Galveston professor and a team of colleagues discovered a new remipede species on a 10-day research trip to the Caribbean earlier this month.
Marine biology professor Tom Iliffe said the team probably discovered at least one new species of ocean life during their travels along the Turks and Caicos Islands, which are low-lying coral islands in the Atlantic Ocean about 400 miles southeast of Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas.
"We collected what we believe is a new remipede species, likely related to those found in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico," Iliffe said. "Other new species of cave and marine life will likely be found once further examination is complete."
Iliffe said remipedes, which were first discovered in 1982, range from 1/2-inch to 2 inches long and can be mistaken for swimming centipedes rather than the crustaceans they are. He said the dives often occur inland but relatively close to the ocean.
"Although the dinosaurs have gone extinct, these animals have survived, so they're really ancient and are, in a sense, living fossils," Iliffe said. "They tell us a lot, potentially, about mechanisms of evolution, adaptation to the cave environment and dispersal by geological means in terms of the movement of land masses."
The team was funded by a grant from the Smithsonian's Global Genome Initiative, whose mission is to gather genetic information on all forms of marine life.
"Animals like the crustaceans, and particularly remipedes, are so essential because they're so different from everything else," he said. "There's nothing like them, so we want to find out what's in their DNA, their genetic makeup and preserve that so future scientists -- using more improved techniques -- can investigate perhaps new drugs or interesting features that we know nothing about now."
According to an A&M release, remipedes have a head and long body with 15-42 similarly shaped segments, each with paddle-shaped limbs. All remipedes are eyeless and lack body pigmentation -- typical adaptations to life in the depths of lightless saltwater caves. Iliffe said remipedes are the only venomous crustacean and have advanced nervous systems.
"They have a pair of venom-injecting fangs that they use to prey on smaller shrimp and other animals that live in the cave. We've seen them grab a small shrimp and carry it around," Iliffe said.
He said Friday morning that he has worked in the marine biology field -- or, more accurately, in the water -- since the 1970s. A Friday A&M release said he has discovered more than 350 species of marine life and explored more than 1,500 underwater caves.
Iliffe said a sense of urgency undergirds his research, explaining pollution, drilling and tourism-induced development have endangered natural habitats around the world.
"Time is critical and running out for this research," Iliffe said. "Many of these caves are in danger of pollution or destruction. One cave in which we found a rich assortment of marine animals on our last trip here is now polluted and lifeless. If we don't obtain this information now, it may be lost to us forever."
Iliffe said the physical sensation of being in an underwater cave compares to that of an astronaut floating in space.
"Not only are you floating, but it's in an essentially soundless environment. And because of that, you can move up more closely to animals and have much more time to do your work," he said. "It's an extraordinary experience, and it's so peaceful. When I go underwater in a cave, all my thoughts and worries on everything else in my life disappear. I'm entirely focused on the dive and the cave. It's such a relaxing experience."
The multinational team of elite marine biologists and cave divers was also led by former Texas A&M at Galveston graduate student Brett C. Gonzalez, now a postdoctoral researcher in the lab of Karen Osborn at the Smithsonian -- National Museum of Natural History, and Katrine Worsaae from the University of Copenhagen.
The next step for the team is to carry out molecular and morphological analyses of all the specimens collected. Later this year, Iliffe and his team will continue their exploration, investigating caves in Belize and the Yucatan Peninsula.