Scientists have discovered a new marine species in a cave near Cozumel, Quintana Roo.
Given the scientific name ophionereis commutabilis, the creature is a type of ophiuroid, or brittle star, and it is already endangered.
The investigation that discovered the species was led by Francisco Solís Marín of the Institute of Marine Sciences and Limnology at the National Autonomous University (UNAM). He described the new species in an interview with the UNAM Gazette.
“They have a small, flat body which is shaped like a disc, and five long, thin arms that extend 18-20 centimeters in length. The extremities look like snakes,” he said.
Brittle stars are related to starfish, but they are not of the same genus. They have similar features, but are morphologically different.
“Its Greek name defines it,” said the UNAM Gazette, “as it’s an echinoderm: echino: spine, and derm: skin. In this group are also starfish, urchins, crinoids and sea cucumbers.”
There are over 2,000 species of brittle stars in the world that have been documented since 2010, but only two others live in caves. One is found in the United States and the other in Japan.
This Mexican species is threatened by the area’s hotel industry.
Solís explained that the caves in which the animal lives contain very specific ecological conditions that make them like “laboratories of evolution,” and are therefore very fragile.
“Although there is currently an abundant population . . . this number is finite, and therefore immediate and conclusive actions will be key to preserving them . . .” he said.