Celebrating Taxonomist Day with Elvis Worms and Sneaky Pipefish

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Happy Taxonomist Appreciation Day! On this day dedicated to the scientists who name, define and classify all living things, the World Register of Marine Species (WoRMS) also honors discoveries in marine biology by posting a “Top 10” of the marine species discovered throughout the year. The year 2020 saw fascinating discoveries in the world of sea life, and, once more, species first described in Pensoft‘s open-access journal ZooKeys made it to the Top 10!

The Fabulous, Rowdy Elvis Worm   

The sparkliest entry in this year’s Top 10, and arguably the most glamorous deep-sea animal discovered in 2020, is undoubtedly a scale worm described in ZooKeys by scientists of the University of California San Diego, the French National Centre for Scientific Research and Sorbonne University.

Peinaleopolynoe orphanae

Deep in the Pacific Ocean, researchers found not one, not two, but four species of iridescent scale worms. They have yet to figure out why these critters shimmer, but the Internet was already calling them ‘Elvis worms’ or ‘glitter worms’, because their scales evoked associations with Elvis’ shiny costumes. One species was even formally named Peinaleopolynoe elvisi in honor of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.

It was however one of the other three species, Peinaleopolynoe orphanae, that made it to the Top 10 –  because, in the words of the committee, it has “both the most stunning iridescence and the feistiest temperament!”

P. orphanae was first collected from a hydrothermal vent in the Gulf of California at a depth of 3700 m and named after geobiologist Victoria Orphan. The first part of its name, Peinaleopolynoe, comes from a Greek word for hungry, in reference to the attraction of these worms to food falls.

Surprisingly, Peinaleopolynoe orphanae engage in fights between each other before the eyes of the researchers! In what has never been seen in scale worms before, the scientists recorded a “face-off”, where two individuals kept attacking one another back and forth for several minutes.

The Red Pipefish, Master of Disguise

The Red Wide-Bodied Pipefish (Stigmatopora harastii) dwells in New South Wales, Australia, at 10-25 m depth, and is so good at camouflage that you might have a hard time spotting it even when you’re looking straight at it. It was first reported by underwater photographers in Jervis Bay in 2002, but was only described as a new species in 2020 by scientists from the Australian Museum, California Academy of Sciences, Burke Museum, and the University of British Columbia.

This curious new fish associates with red algae or finger sponges, which allows it to stay hidden in plain sight. It is colored bright red, but curiously that only helps it to go unnoticed. Oriented vertically or at an angle, it camouflages itself among the red algae. Virtually indistinguishable from its surroundings, it only occasionally darts out of its cozy cover to munch on small copepods and shrimp.

Stigmatopora harastii

Stigmatopora harastii was named after David Harasti, one of the first people to recognize it as a new species and a pronounced fan of the Stigmatopora genus. According to the research paper, “David has stated he counts green pipefish to fall asleep.” We don’t know how he feels about red pipefish, but this one charms with both looks and skills, so we hope it becomes one of his favorites.

Stigmatopora harastii

Researchers believe the red pipefish might have a wider distribution in New South Wales and possibly New Zealand – it can be very hard to detect because of its preferred depth range and its remarkable camouflaging ability.

The 10 remarkable new marine species from 2020 listed by WoRMS are a celebration of all wonderful and sometimes even quite weird creatures that dwell in the sea, and a reminder of how important it is to explore and protect marine life. Here’s to another year of fun little creatures and amazing scientific discoveries!