8 Mar 2007

The New Caledonian Neoglyph

Dear Blue Lobster:

I read about some ancient lobster that was found near Australia. What can you tell me about it? Is it really a "living fossil?"


Dear Gentle Sir:

Discovered in the remote sea near New Caledonia, the creature you refer to — the New Caledonian Neoglyph — has captivated scientists and laymen alike.

Discovered in 2005 and described in a 2006 paper, the new species represents an extant type of crustacean thought to have gone extinct long ago. Indeed, it has many interesting behavioral and physiological characteristics that will make it important in understanding pleocymate taxonomy in years to come.

The term "living fossil," however, is a bit of a misnomer. It actually just means that a certain organism has changed very little over long spans of time. The scientific term for this is "archeomorph," which means "ancient form."

A sister species, the Fenix Lobster (Neoglyphea inopinata) was discovered early last century and together with the N. neocaledonia represent a group of crustacrans thought to have gone extinct some 50 million years ago in the Eocene. The glyphids have eyes suited for scouring the benthos, or deep-sea floor, and specially-modified chelicerae for picking through the cold detritus at the bottom of the ocean.

To the casual observer, the Neoglyph resemble a cross between a shrimp or prawn and a lobster, and indeed scientists believe it is an ancient lineage early in decapod evolution closely related to early lobsters or shrimp groups, possibly dating from almost 400 million years ago. Molecular testing will soon place the family taxonomically. It is thought to belong with Reptantia.

Several specimens of the New Caledonian Neoglyph are now on display at the National Zoo & Aquarium in Canberra, Australia. The zoo is attempting to initiate a breeding program for the creatures.

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