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Four new species of a tiny, blind crustacean you’ll never see

Tuesday, 15 May 2018


Researchers from Edith Cowan University have discovered four new species of tiny, blind crustaceans in aquifers beneath the Pilbara Region in remote Western Australia.

Known as stygofauna, they spend their entire lives in the dark. Not that that would bother them as they don’t have eyes.

You’re not likely to see them either as they’re almost translucent and only about 1mm long.

ECU School of Science PhD candidate Giulia Perina was responsible for defining the four new species. She said they are important to the health of groundwater around Australia.

“They recycle nutrients from groundwater, they’re excellent indicators of the health of groundwater, they also help us understand the interconnections between the aquifers underground, and the geological history of the Pilbara” she said.

“That’s especially true in areas where mining and other human activities which affect groundwater are occurring.”

The four new species are part of the family Bathynellidae and are a type of crustacean.

There’s only one other species of the family which has been named by science, despite the fact they seem to exist in almost every aquifer in Australia.

That’s because the study and defining of each new species is incredibly difficult and time consuming.

Specimens for this research were collected from boreholes drilled during mining exploration and environmental impact surveys around Ethel Gorge just east of Newman in the East Pilbara region about 1200 km north of Perth.

Identification trepidation

To identify different species each specimens’ legs and mouth parts must be dissected.

Mrs Perina travelled to Spain to learn how to work on identifying stygofauna from the only active specialist working in this area.

“They have such a thin delicate exoskeleton that they can disappear after treating them with liquids used to examine them under a microscope” she said.

“There’s a reason why there’s only a few specialists researching these animals around the world. It is very hard.

“You have to dissect all of the legs, the mouth parts. Can you imagine dissecting the legs of a creature that’s 0.8mm long?”

Even after the lab work, genetic analysis is used to help determine the difference between species.

Only one of the four species has been named so far, Pilbaranella ethelensis, the other three, and a potential fifth species all require more specimens to be taxonomically described as a distinct species.

The Pilbara is a globally important region for stygofauna with an estimated 550 species, most of which are unique to small areas of the region.

They have largely been discovered as part of surveys conducted for mining exploration.

Mrs Perina’s findings were published in the journal Invertebrate Systematics and includes co-authors from the WA Museum, the University of Western Australia and the National Museum of Natural History in Madrid, Spain.


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