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Three previously unknown sea creatures have been found at Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary by Georgia Southern University scientists working there to document all the invertebrates living at the sanctuary. The sanctuary is managed by NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA is an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce.
The creatures are types of sea squirts — also known as tunicates — bottom dwelling invertebrate animals that are part of the rich diversity of species found at the sanctuary.
“The fact that the three animals have never before been described by science and may well be new species is an exciting discovery,” said Gray’s Reef Sanctuary Manager Reed Bohne. More samples will have to be examined before scientists can definitively say they have a new species, but the animals are unlike any known tunicates.
“It makes you wonder if these species exist in other places. It suggests that we have something unique to Gray’s Reef,” said Daniel Gleason, associate professor of biology at Georgia Southern University. “That makes it even more worthwhile to conserve that habitat.”
Gleason and fellow GSU scientists Alan Harvey and Stephen Vives have worked for three years to document all the invertebrates at Gray’s Reef in a field guide. So far, 350 specimens have been collected and photographed. The guide will eventually be available online for use by both other scientists and recreational divers who are interested in identifying what they see at Gray’s Reef.
The new tunicates were collected by Gleason and four students – Lauren Wagner, Rob Ruzicka, Chris Freeman, Sarah Mock — under a special permit to conduct scientific work in the sanctuary. It is against sanctuary regulations to collect invertebrates from the sanctuary without a permit.
When Gleason and his students could not fully identify the mysterious tunicates, they turned to Russian tunicate expert Karen Sanamyan for assistance. Out of dozens of samples from Gray’s Reef, Sanamyan identified the three as being previously undescribed species.
Among all the invertebrates — animals without backbones — tunicates are more closely related to mankind than any others, Gleason said. Both tunicates and humans are members of the broad class of living creatures called chordates that at some time during their lifecycles share a number of physical features including neural cords that run the length of their bodies. In humans, the feature is expressed in the presence of the spinal cord.
The science being done by Gleason and his students is just one example of the variety of uses that are balanced within the management of the sanctuary.
Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary is one of the largest near shore live-bottom reefs off the southeastern United States, encompassing approximately 17 square nautical miles. The area earned sanctuary designation in 1981. Gray’s Reef consists of a series of sandstone outcroppings and ledges up to ten feet in height, in a predominantly sandy, flat-bottomed sea floor. The live bottom and ledge habitat support an abundant reef fish and invertebrate community. Loggerhead sea turtles, a threatened species, also use Gray’s Reef year-round for foraging and resting, and the reef is within the known winter calving ground for the highly endangered Northern Right Whale.
NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuary Program, which manages Gray’s Reef, seeks to increase the public awareness of America’s maritime heritage by conducting scientific research, monitoring, exploration and educational programs. Today, the sanctuary program manages 13 national marine sanctuaries and one coral reef ecosystem reserve that encompass more than 150,000 square miles of America’s ocean and Great Lakes natural and cultural resources.
NOAA’s National Ocean Service manages the National Marine Sanctuary Program and is dedicated to exploring, understanding, conserving and restoring the nation’s coasts and oceans. The National Ocean Service balances environmental protection with economic prosperity in fulfilling its mission of promoting safe navigation, supporting coastal communities, sustaining coastal habitats and mitigating coastal hazards.
NOAA is dedicated to enhancing economic security and national safety through the prediction and research of weather and climate-related events and providing environmental stewardship of our nation’s coastal and marine resources.
On the Web:
National Ocean Service: http://oceanservice.noaa.gov
National Marine Sanctuary Program: http://sanctuaries.noaa.gov
Reef National Marine Sanctuary: http://www.graysreef.noaa.gov