NMU collaborative team discovers tiny burrower with key role
A new species, a tiny prawn-like burrower, has been discovered in the rare stromatolite formations on the Port Elizabeth coast.
The discovery of the half-centimetre-long creature was made by a team of scientists led by Nelson Mandela University researchers Dr Gavin Rishworth and Professor Renzo Perissinotto, and a collaborator from the University of Lodz in Poland, Dr Magdalena Blazewicz.
The new species accolade was confirmed in the publication of their paper this week in international journal Marine Biodiversity and the creature had been named Sinelobus stromatoliticus in reference to its unique home, Rishworth said yesterday.
“Although small and inconspicuous, it plays a pivotal role as a gardener, trimming and consuming excess seaweed to ensure this doesn’t overgrow the light or nutrients necessary for the stromatolite itself.”
Stromatolites are thought to provide a window into the ancient, sludgy world when the Earth began and the first living environments evolved some 3.5 million years ago.
They require a precise mix of nitrogen-rich groundwater and phosphorus-rich seawater and occur in just a handful of spots in the world, including on the coasts of Western Australia, Northern Ireland and the Bahamas – and the Eastern Cape.
Stromatolites are made of cyanobacteria, trapped sand granules and chalky calcium carbonate, which they generate.
Previous research had shown that the cyanobacteria were largely responsible for flooding Earth’s atmosphere with oxygen some two billion years ago and making it habitable for the first time.
The new global stromatolite hotspot between Cape Recife, Schoenmakerskop and Seaview was identified in 2012 by Perissinotto and Dr Thomas Bornman of the South African Earth Observation Network.
Besides Sinelobus being a new species, it was also confirmation for the first time that marine animals live among stromatolites, Rishworth said.
“They use the stromatolites as a miniature refuge to escape predators or extreme temperatures.
“This is unusual, as in m ost other ecosystems these organisms would disrupt and destroy the stromatolites while they burrowed and ate their way through it.”
The aim now was to study the other stromatolite formations between Port Elizabeth and Storm’s River and on the Wild Coast, and globally, to see if Sinelobus occurred there as well or whether it was restricted to the Port Elizabeth area.
The question now was what other new species could be hiding in the stromatolites, Rishworth said.
“It is predicted that some of the untapped medicinal and healthcare revelations might come from natural products. This could be the start of a great treasure trove.”
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