'Extinct' animal rediscovered in Picton

Last updated 13:20 29/05/2014
Protulophila polyps
DISCOVERED: Artist's impression of living Protulophila polyps in a worm tube.

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A marine animal thought to have been extinct for four million years has been found near Picton.

The new hydroid, or "living fossil", called protulophila forms a network of tiny holes in the protective tubes of marine worms.

Hydroids are a small group of creatures, about a millimetre in size, related to jelly fish and coral.

However, they form colonies on the hard protective surface of tubeworms that can cover about a square centimetre.Fossil examples were discovered earlier this year by a group of scientists from NIWA, London's Natural History Museum and the University of Oslo. 

The scientists had been conducting fieldwork at Wanganui where they found protulophila in a tubeworm from geologically young rocks less than a million years old.

This discovery alerted them to the possibility that the hydroid, previously unknown outside of Europe and the Middle East, might still be alive today in New Zealand.

It was thought to have been extinct for four million years following a long geological history extending back 170 million years into the Middle Jurassic period in Europe.

Scientists examined tubeworms stored in NIWA's Wellington-based Invertebrate Collection and discovered examples of preserved protulophila that had previously been overlooked. The tubeworms had been collected in 20 metres of water in Queen Charlotte Sound in 2008.

NIWA marine biologist Dennis Gordon said the hydroids had been found only in Queen Charlotte Sound, despite sea worms being common throughout New Zealand.

However, they could have been the ''last vestige of a population'', Gordon said.

They could also be the missing polyp stage to an otherwise known jelly fish, he said.

"It's very exciting... our discovery may mean that we are solving two puzzles at once."  

The next step will be to collect fresh samples from Queen Charlotte Sound to be sent to Geneva for gene sequencing.

FACT BOX

Hydroids

- About a millimetre in height

- Related to jelly fish and coral

- Have small stems with creeping tentacles 

- Catch their food with mini stingers

- Look like little bits of moss

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- The Marlborough Express

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