Academy Scientists Make Important Discoveries

Discovering a new species — a distinct group of organisms that mostly breed among themselves — is not for the faint of heart.  Academy scientists forge isolated dangerous rapids to collect fish; risk polar bears to scour Arctic rocks for fossils no one has ever seen before; endure the steady drone of highway traffic and beating sun — to mention a fraction of their recent adventures.  

And then there are the hours of study, collaborating and writing back in the lab. 

Contrary to popular assumptions, the daunting endeavor of discovery is not an isolated pursuit reserved for the top scientists of the world. College students and hobbyists often contribute to major discoveries and some of them even grow up to be scientists and make their own discoveries. 

We encounter these situations in this summary of three of the new species named by Academy scientists in 2022, plus two new species named FOR Academy scientists.  

Synbranchus royali

Swamp eel that inspired a haiku 

When most people think of swamp eels they think of an eel that lives in a still swamp. But Synbranchus royal, a new species discovered by Ichthyology Curator Mark Sabaj, PhD, and Collection Manager Mariangeles Arce H., PhD, inhabits swift rocky rapids. 

This is only the fourth species of Synbranchus recognized by scientists, and it is found throughout South America. A series of international field expeditions in the mid-2010s led by Sabaj collected the eel in the main channels of the Rio Xingu, Brazil. 

Synbranchus royal is distinguished in part by its large head (like a crown) and is named after American ichthyologist Tyson Royal Roberts. With a little help from his friends and colleagues, Roberts has examined more Synbranchus specimens than all other fish scientists combined. 

Co-authors on the publication in the Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia are Drexel co-ops Devon Donahue and Amanda Cramer, who worked in Ichthyology from 2014-2016 and helped collect and analyze the DNA sequence data used to help distinguish the species as new. 

Synbranchus royal haiku by Mark Sabaj
Do clear waters swift
Fill your swollen head with thoughts
Of swamps ancestral 

Reconstruction of Qikiqtania wakei

Four-legged “fishapod” that opted for life aquatic 

Turns out not all lobe-finned fish transitioning from animals with fins to animals with limbs 375 million years ago opted to cast their future on land. Qikiqtania wakei, a new genus and species closely related to the famous Tiktaalik roseae that could propel itself on land, instead “decided” to stick with aquatic living. 

“The specimen demonstrates that major evolutionary events occur within groups of closely related forms that are ‘experimenting’ with new morphology and ecological niches,” said Vertebrate Zoology Curator Ted Daeschler, PhD., a co-author of the scholarly report in Nature. “Transitional forms between finned and limbed vertebrates are rare and this new form increases the diversity of species from this important intermediate stage.” 

Daeschler co-led a team that made numerous expeditions to Ellesmere Island, Nunavut Territory in Arctic Canada. On one of those trips 15 years ago, he and field partner Neil Shubin of the University of Chicago collected specimens from a quarry after spotting some rocks with distinctive white scales on the surface. But they remained in storage while the team focused on understanding Tiktaalik.  

The nature of the single specimen of Qikiqtania wakei was not fully revealed until a team from the Shubin Lab CT scanned a relatively non-descript piece of rock with scales on the surface and revealed a pectoral fin preserved just below the surface of the block. 

Research Associate Jason Downs at the site where Langlieria smalingi was discovered

Oldest of the old lobe-finned fish 

Langlieria smalingi is a new species of lobe-finned fish, a large predator that trolled the delta-like ecosystems in Pennsylvania during the Late Devonian (about 370 million years ago). It is the oldest known tristichopterid from the Catskill Formation.  

The nature of the discovery site suggests that Langlieria smalingi was living in brackish (more salinity than freshwater but less than seawater) water, unlike most discoveries from the Catskill Formation that come from ancient freshwater ecosystems. The specimen was collected by recreational paleontologists Jim Smaling and Jim Forster from an exposure of the Catskill Formation along a highway roadcut in Centre County. 

They donated the specimen to the Academy, where Curator Daeschler and Research Associate and Delaware Valley University Professor Jason Downs added it to their intensive studies of these large, predatory tristichopterids from the Keystone State. In the last 5 years, Daeschler and Downs have described four new species, and another is in the works. Link to the paper in ResearchGate

Collection Manager Ned Gilmore

Academy scientists honored with species names 

Vertebrate Zoology Collection Manager Ned Gilmore was honored with a new species of limbless worm-like caecilian, Funcusvermis gilmorei, described by lead author Ben Klingman, a Virginia Tech PhD candidate. As a child, Klingman visited the Academy frequently with his parents and interned with Gilmore, who turned out to be a mentor and inspiration.  

Mark Sabaj was honored with a new species of knifefish, Sternopygus sabaji, described by doctoral student Kevin Torgersen and his advisor James Albert at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Sabaj collected the type series during an expedition to Suriname in 2007 and loaned the specimens to Kevin for his doctoral research on the group. 

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