A living fossil - Critter of the Week - Protulophila gestroi

If this is looking familiar, you may have read the NIWA press release or one of the many news sites that featured the exciting discovery of this living fossil marine creature found alive and well in the sea near Picton, New Zealand (1.)

Protulophila gestroi is a type of colonial hydroid with tiny polyps that makes its home in the chalky tubes of serpulid fan worms. It was thought to have been extinct for the last 4 million years (here is an example of a geological paper describing their discovery in the fossil record (2)), however live animals of Protulophila were found just recently on some samples of tube worm collected in 2008.

We asked one of the discoverers, our own NIWA marine biologist Dr Dennis Gordon, about the highlights of the find for him, and he said that several things stand out for him.

Firstly this find was an example of serendipity in science; Dennis, Dr Paul Taylor of London’s Natural History Museum (NHM) and Drs Lee Hsiang Liow, Kjetil Voje and Seabourne Rust of the University of Oslo, went out collecting fossil Bryozoa at Wanganui and incidentally picked up a tubeworm with fossil Protulophila on it. Paul alerted Dennis to the possibility that the species might still be alive on tubeworms, so Dennis had a look in our invertebrate collection. He luckily found the distinctive holes in the first tubeworm sample he looked at - and no others! It seemed as if the polyps with tentacles that would give it away as a hydroid were not to be found though. He sent the sample to Andrea Waeschenbach at NHM and luckily she found some polyps while searching for tissue for gene sequencing. It was mostly all accidental discovery.

We are excited along with Dennis and his colleagues since finding Protulophila. It is a rare example of a fossil leading to the discovery of living biodiversity.


1) http://www.niwa.co.nz/news/northern-hemisphere-fossil-discovered-living-in-new-zealand

SEM image of Protulophila openings in serpulid fan worm tube (Paul Taylor, NHM London). Bottom left: Resin cast of Protulophila burrows and connections in worm tubes (Paul Taylor, NHM London). Right: Artists impression of living Protulophila (Erika Mackay, NIWA).