Adhering to the mouthparts of a lobster like a suction-cup toy and sweeping up the lobster’s errant food particles like a living napkin is a tiny animal whose anatomy and life cycle are unlike anything seen before, scientists have reported.
The creature is so unique in its style and appearance that the biologists who discovered it have given it not just its own species name, or its own genus or family, but have moved way up the classification scale and declared that it is an entirely new phylum.
The name of the new phylum is Cycliophora, Greek for “carrying a small wheel.” The description refers to the creature’s very striking circular mouth, which is surrounded by a ring of fine hairlike cilia and which bears a vague resemblance to the upholstery attachment for a vacuum cleaner.
As might be expected of something that spends its life perched on a lobster’s lips, the creature is very modest in size, no bigger than a period on this page.
The report of the new organism, by Peter Funch and Reinhardt Mobjerg Kristensen of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, appears today in the journal Nature.
In a commentary that appears with the paper, Dr. Simon Conway Morris, a paleontologist at the University of Cambridge in England, describes the finding as “the zoological highlight of the decade.”
While biologists perpetually find new species, they can almost always fit the organism into one of the existing taxonomic pigeonholes by which scientists classify all life forms.
The discovery of an organism so unusual that it needs its own phylum is an extremely rare event. There are only 35 or so known phyla, the second-highest ranking in the classification scheme, just below the mega-designation of “kingdom” that separates animals from plants from fungi.
Human beings, for example, fall under the phylum Chordata, which includes all vertebrates, warm- and cold-blooded alike. The last new phylum - of another type of microscopic marine creature - was proposed in 1983.
So far, the Cycliophora phylum has only the one species, but Funch said he expected there were many others like it waiting to be discovered. The species name he and his colleague have bestowed on their find is Symbion pandora, the first word referring to the animal’s status as a symbiont, which co-exists with the lobster without doing it any harm, the second an allusion to its intricate life cycle.