Scientists discover rare parasitic isopod species that feeds on fish

The juveniles feed on the blood of fish like a mosquito or ticks.
Loukia Papadopoulos
Gnathia jimmybuffetti.jpg

An international team of scientists from the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric, and Earth Science and the Water Research Group from the Unit for Environmental Sciences and Management at the North-West University in South Africa has stumbled upon a new species of marine cryptofauna in the Florida Keys. They have called the new species Gnathia jimmybuffetti – named after music legend Jimmy Buffett.

“By naming a species after an artist, we want to promote the integration of the arts and sciences,” said Sikkel, whose research team named a similar species from the Caribbean after Bob Marley (Gnathia marleyi). 

This is according to a press release by the institutions published on Monday.

How it was found

The roughly three-millimeter-long isopod is a member of a group of crustaceans called gnathiid isopods and was discovered through the use of light traps set in shallow water. It is one of only 15 species from the genus Gnathia currently known in the region and was characterized using photomicrographs and genetic sequencing.

“Upon examination, it was determined to be a species that was previously unknown to science,” said senior investigator Paul Sikkel, a research professor in the Department of Marine Biology and Ecology at the Rosenstiel School. “It’s the first new Florida gnathiid to be discovered in 100 years.”

These tiny animals are grouped as parasites, organisms that require a living host for survival. The juveniles are most active at night and feed on the blood of fish like a mosquito or ticks, while the adults do not feed and live hidden in rubble on the ocean floor. 

The researchers also noted that while these organisms have a parasitic lifestyle, they are in no way likening artists like Buffet and Marley, whom they admire and respect, to parasites.

The species are currently threatened by current severe marine heatwave events because they cannot swim to cooler water. Research by Sikkel’s team on other gnathiid species has indicated that at above-average seawater temperatures, mortality rates increase and the abundance of gnathiids on reefs decreases significantly. These effects are expected to be similar for the variety of other small invertebrates that live in or near the benthos (bottom), resulting in major impacts on coral reef food webs. 

“All species in an ecosystem play an important role and all species have something to teach us,” said Sikkel in the statement. “As we discover new species, we are reminded of how many undiscovered species there still are.”

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