Marine Animal Thought to be Extinct for 4 Million Years Found Alive

Protulophila, a microscopic marine animal thought to have been extinct for 4 million years, has been found living in seas around New Zealand.

This scanning electron microscope image shows a cast of polyp chambers and connections of Protulophila in a worm tube. Image credit: Paul Taylor / Natural History Museum, London.

This scanning electron microscope image shows a cast of polyp chambers and connections of Protulophila in a worm tube. Image credit: Paul Taylor / Natural History Museum, London.

First described by Italian biologist G. Rovereto in 1901, Protulophila is a genus of symbiotic hydrozoans.

This small, predatory relative of corals and sea anemones was previously known only from marine deposits in Europe and the Middle East.

It was thought to have been extinct for 4 million years following a long history extending back more than 160 million years into the middle Jurassic period.

In 2014, Dr Paul Taylor from London’s Natural History Museum and his colleagues discovered fossilized Protulophila in a 1-million-year-old tube worm fossil found at Wanganui, New Zealand.

This discovery alerted the team to the possibility that the animal might still be alive today.

The scientists then examined tubeworms stored in the Wellington-based Invertebrate Collection and discovered examples of preserved Protulophila that had previously been overlooked. The tubeworms had been collected in 2008 in the waters off Picton, New Zealand.

This is an artist's impression of living Protulophila polyps in a worm tube. Image credit: Dennis Gordon / Erika MacKay / NIWA.

This is an artist’s impression of living Protulophila polyps in a worm tube. Image credit: Dennis Gordon / Erika MacKay / NIWA.

“Finding living Protulophila is a rare example of how knowledge of fossils has led to the discovery of living biodiversity,” said Dr Dennis Gordon from the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research in New Zealand, a co-author of the discovery.

According to the researchers, Protulophila lives in the shelly tubes of marine tube worms called serpulids.

This tiny creature measures less than 0.1 mm in size and lives in colonies.

It has two life stages. First, as a polyp, it is anchored to something solid, before budding off and becoming a tiny jellyfish.

The scientists say that the next step will be to collect fresh individuals of Protulophila for gene sequencing.

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K Zágoršek et al. 2009. Coexistence of symbiotic hydroids (Protulophila) on serpulids and bryozoans in a cryptic habitat at Chrtníky (lower Turonian, Czech Republic). Bulletin of Geosciences, vol. 84, no. 4, pp. 631 – 636; doi: 10.3140/bull.geosci.1079

Colin T. Scrutton. 1975. Hydroid-Serpulid symbiosis in the Mesozoic and Tertiary. Paleontology, vol. 18, part 2, pp. 255–274