Friday, February 18, 2011

Lobster Missing Link Identified

It appears that a major blank in the evolution of the lobster has fallen into place.  A bit of luck and plenty of other data has given us an obvious transition specimen.  It is all a reminder that we are living through a golden age for all branches of biology and the secrets of every major species is now under assault.  The next great wave after this will be the restoration of a wide range of extinct species.

That we should know this about the lobster is delightful.  That the lobster is well on the way to been a sea food staple through effective husbandry is also fitting.

Pa. professor studies lobster 'missing link'


Friday, 9:01 PM

The phrase "lobster missing link" might be a little bit misleading.

What Dale Tshudy's research helped uncover wasn't a small, clawed Sasquatch patrolling the Atlantic coast of Maine, but something even more exciting.

Tshudy, a geosciences professor at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania and a widely regarded expert in crustacean fossils, has spent the past couple of years filling in a large blank in the evolution of lobsters.

"It's months of long days," Tshudy said. "But I enjoy maintaining and improving the database we all work from."

By studying roughly 50-million-year-old fossils found off the coast of Steeple Bay, England, Tshudy believes he has found evidence of an extinct lobster species.

The new species fills in numerous gaps in what in now known about the lobster genus Thaumastocheles.

This particular group of lobsters isn't what you'd expect to see on your dinner plate. They reside in the deep waters of places like the Sea of Japan or the Caribbean and are rarely encountered by humans.

Tshudy said they're most easily recognized by their long, slender claws and a "bulb-shaped" palm, which looks very little like the fat, club-like claws of Maine lobsters.

It was those unique appendages that helped Tshudy know he was dealing with something significant when he got an e-mail from an amateur fossil collector in 2008.

"These are so distinctive," Tshudy said. "They don't look like any other lobster. I could tell by a simple black-and-white photograph."

That e-mail was from British fossil collector Jeff Saward, who is a world-renowned expert in mazes and labyrinths.

Saward had found Tshudy by searching his work online, and the two would end up spending the next two years e-mailing back and forth about the discovery.

"It took five minutes to say, 'Wow, this is something that we should develop,'" Tshudy said. "Everything just fell into place."

After the original correspondence, Saward shipped the fossils, which Tshudy said were "exquisitely preserved," to the U.S.

Tshudy said the new species fills the gap of the fossil record virtually perfectly. It represents a midway point in the physical transformation from already discovered extinct ancestors and present-day descendants.

He was able to discern the new species lived in the time between and at a depth somewhere between its deep-dwelling descendants and shallow-water ancestors.

Tshudy is currently putting the finishing touches on a scholarly paper on the new species that was co-authored by Saward.

Tshudy said it'd be too early to reveal the name of the new species, but he said that naming protocols often use Latin descriptions of distinctive features or where it was found.

In the case of a species studied by some of his former colleagues from Kent State University, one crustacean was named in honor of Tshudy, although he's careful to clarify he had nothing to do with that name selection.

Tshudy said he's classified about 5 or 6 species throughout his career, including some others he's working on right now, and he even worked to define larger groups like genera and families.

He tries to incorporate his research into his courses, often bringing fossils shipped from overseas or museums like the Smithsonian Institution into class.

"If I weren't doing this, I'd get stale in a hurry," Tshudy said. "I couldn't just teach the same class year after year. I have to be excited personally about something."

No comments: