Mysterious little red jellies: A case of mistaken identity | 3/20/2019 | Staff
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Little red jellies are commonplace near the deep seafloor in Monterey Bay and around the world. Most of them are small—less than five centimeters (two inches) across—and a ruddy red color, but we know little else about them. Though MBARI researchers have observed them for decades, their role in the food web, what they eat, and what eats them, still largely remain mysteries. Now scientists are finding that even their evolution and relationships to one another are probably incorrect.

MBARI biologist George Matsumoto is one of the researchers untangling the complicated red-jelly family tree. In this month's issue of Frontiers in Marine Science, Matsumoto and his colleagues present a key to help scientists tell these look-alike species apart through their physical differences, depth distribution, and behavior.

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"For 30 years now we've been seeing lots of these jellies, little red jellies, just above the bottom and in the water column," said Matsumoto, "and it turns out that historically, even though we thought we knew what they were, many of the initial papers had the wrong identification."

As the jellies were described (given scientific names) over the years, scientists corrected each other and renamed the species several times. The family tree became so convoluted that even experts were getting confused. Matsumoto, one of MBARI's jellyfish experts, first noticed this when a paper of his was corrected by colleagues for mistaking one species for another. However, upon further investigation, Matsumoto found literature suggesting that the proposed species classification was based on an incomplete description of the animal.

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"When you describe an animal, you collect a specific animal in the group you've described and you put it in a museum, so you and others can go back and look at it for reference," explained Matsumoto. The museum's specimen becomes known as the type specimen—a sample that represents the...
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