Biologists discover new species of shrimp

Posted: Friday, March 18, 2005

BOISE, Idaho — Biologists with the Idaho National Guard have discovered a new species of fairy shrimp living in the oft-dry lake beds of Idaho's desert.

Though they look delicate enough to match their name, they are strong enough to survive, unhatched, for years in the baking heat of summer and the frozen tundra of winter until enough rain falls and the pools return. Once they awaken they live a few frenzied weeks, mating and leaving behind tiny cyst-like offspring, then die.

''This is a large, predatory fairy shrimp. This guy is about 3 inches long. That is huge for a fairy shrimp,'' biologist Dana Quinney said Tuesday during a news conference announcing the discovery.

There are already about 300 known species of fairy shrimp worldwide, Quinney said, but only three other species boast the size of the newly discovered ones. Though the animals have been given a Latin name, Quinney is reluctant to reveal it until an article describing the species is published in a scientific journal, possibly next winter.

Dana Quinney and a colleague, Jay Weaver, first noticed the carnivorous shrimp in 1996. It took them nearly nine years to compare the animal to the existing species and realize they had something entirely different.

''If you're just a little biologist like me, you're kind of a generalist,'' she said. ''Many species of fairy shrimp look very much alike and it not only takes an expert but it takes an expert and a good microscope to tell them apart. This one is really, really, really different from all the other species in the world.''

The new species has several spines on its front legs, and each spine is covered with several more, even smaller spines. The belly of the shrimp is covered with patches of Velcro-like spikes, enabling it to stick to and store up to four smaller fairy shrimp of different species — its prey. The new species also have a unique long, tapered and forked tail and the males have much longer antennas than other fairy shrimp.

It's no wonder that the animals were only recently discovered, Quinney said. They prefer to live in the opaque, brown pools known as playas that only occur during good water years.

Like other fairy shrimp, the animals swim upside down, with their legs toward the water's surface.

''They swim all the time unless it's really cold and they capture and kill smaller fairy shrimp. They sweep the water with these big tail segments and if they contact a prey then they go for it,'' she said.

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