At the base of the food chain, tiny tardigrades may hold key to marine mysteries
Echiniscoides wyethi named for Wyeths who own Maine island where discovery occurred
UNITY, Maine – A Unity College marine biology professor has discovered a new species of tiny marine organism critical to understanding the dynamics of the ocean food chain.
Tardigrades are tiny (.039-inch, on average), distinctive looking invertebrate organisms with eight legs, “like a gummy bear with an extra set of legs,” said Dr. Emma Perry, associate professor of marine biology in the Center for Biodiversity at Unity College.
Tardigrades are found all across the globe and can thrive in some of the most hostile conditions on earth — from the deepest Maine lakes to the vacuum of outer space – and their unique attributes recently were featured in the New York Times.
Perry said the techniques students use in researching and discovering tardigrades include observing, measuring, sorting, codifying, and discovering.
Currently, students are looking at tardigrades that live on the apple trees at different distances from the college campus, as well as working on samples from the Hemlock Ecosystem Management Study plots, samples from Mount Desert Island, and marine tardigrades that live on barnacles.
“It’s interesting that the very first tardigrade ever recorded on the continent was in New Gloucester, Maine,” Perry said. “After (I read) that, I was hooked, not only because the first was in Maine but because nothing else had been done on tardigrades in Maine since 2011 except a paper. In the 100 years prior, nothing.
“Being small had something to do with it,” Perry said. “Microscopes have come an awful long way. It was very difficult to see them back then.”
Unity undergraduates Chaz James, Jesse May, Ashleigh Munton, and William Stoker each spent a week with Perry on Allen Island in the summers of 2014 and 2015, exploring beach habitats to hunt for the first marine tardigrade in Maine.
Looking at the tardigrades in more detail with the microscopes back on the Unity College campus, the students and Perry realized that they had collected two species of tardigrade, one of which was new to science. After careful examination involving help from Dr. William Miller, a tardigrade expert at Baker University in Kansas, the new species was described and published.
Perry named the species Echiniscoides wyethi after the Wyeth family of famed artists who own Allen Island.
Scientific tardigrade research is important because, according to the Consortium of European Taxonomy Facilities (CETAF), “biodiversity loss, global warming and other environmental issues need natural history collections and related expertise as sources of knowledge and for reference.”
“Why care?” Perry asked. “They suffer from lack of knowledge. Just because we don’t know about them doesn’t mean they’re not important. The fact we can describe a new species in one week of looking — not just at tardigrades but lots of smaller invertebrates — right off our backyard, is exciting. We think there are many more species to be documented right here in Maine and the Gulf of Maine.”
Graduates who have training and skills in taxonomy are crucial in the continuation of biodiversity research and conservation, and, according to the National Science Foundation, the information is particularly important “on large but poorly known groups such as bacteria, fungi, protists, and numerous marine and terrestrial invertebrates.”
Research on these species is essential because they “constitute critical elements of food chains and ecosystems and the high proportion of unrecognized species in these groups limit research and progress in many areas of biology and conservation.”
Perry holds a bachelor’s degree in zoology from the University of Exeter in Great Britain; and a PhD in biology from the University of South Florida.
About Unity College
Unity College proudly celebrates its 50th year in 2015. The first institution of higher education in the nation to divest from fossil fuel investments, Unity is committed to educating the next generation of environmental professionals. Sustainability science lies at the heart of its educational mission, with 16 environmentally focused undergraduate majors. For more information, visit unity.edu.