FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Along the coastline of Belize and other Caribbean nations nearly every night, a spectacular light show takes place just beneath the waves. Millions upon millions of tiny crustaceans called ostracods (or, to non-science folk, ‘seed shrimp’) congregate around the nearshore coral reefs and put on a dazzling display of bioluminescence – flashing bright pulses of light into the dark water as they strive to attract a mate.
In the waters near Carrie Bow Caye and South Water Caye in Belize, this spectacle is comprised of a half dozen or so species of ostracod but one in particular, Maristella chicoi, or the ‘Star of the Sea,’ is truly remarkable. So remarkable, in fact, that the World Register of Marine Species (WoRMS for short) announced on March 19, 2020 that the ‘Star of the Sea’ landed on its Top Ten List of the nearly 2,000 newly described marine species in 2019, sharing the honor with organisms like the “Green Rat Clingfish” and “Jim Henson’s Egg-Eating Slug.”
“Maristella chicoi produces my favorite display,” says Gretchen Gerrish, director of the CFL’s Trout Lake Station and a co-discoverer of M. chicoi. Gerrish notes that, out of the more than 60 species of ostracod her team has observed in the Caribbean, none of them put on a show quite like the ‘Star of the Sea.’
“One male begins to put out a short line of lights and then other males intercept him and radiate their line of lights from the end of his display,” she says. “This continues until you get a really beautiful fan of lights strung out horizontally produced by hundreds of different males. And, if that’s not enough, it’s common to see three to four layers of fanning displays stacked below you if you are snorkeling from above. Males from most species work independently or side by side but not in the radiating building way we see in M. chicoi.” (You can see video of the phenomenon here.)
The little seed shrimp live in and among the coral reef and are about the size of a grain of sand, Gerrish says. Unlike other bioluminescent animals, like fireflies, only the males signal and females swim up to them. During a display, Gerrish says, the water is filled with almost entirely all males. “We collect the ostracods by sweeping nets through displays and would catch 300-400 males for every one female.”
A researcher named James Morin first discovered that ostracods used these light displays for courtship in the 1980s. Since then, more than 60 new species have been discovered throughout the Caribbean where, it appears, this behavior is unique. Gerrish says that Maristella chicoi is both a new species and also the representative species for a new genera. “Our on-going work indicates that the genera, Maristella, is likely to include the majority of new species that are being discovered,” she says.
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And, as if this all wasn’t cool enough, the name, Maristella chicoi, also has a good story. Maristella means “star of the sea,” and chicoi is in honor of Orlando ‘Chico’ Escobar, who was a close friend to Gerrish and other members of her team and worked with them as a research assistant in Belize from 2001 – 2013 until he passed away. Gerrish says ‘Chico’ was “always most at home in the water,” and brought an unforgettable laugh and unending willingness to help to his roles as dive master, boat captain and marine naturalist guide.
“I don’t know how many people he introduced to snorkeling and diving, but I know many who have fallen in love with the sea because of his shared enthusiasm,” she says. “Maristella chicoi provides one way for his memory to live on in the waters surrounding the islands he loved in Belize.”
CONTACT: Gretchen A. Gerrish (email@example.com), co-author of the new species.