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Finding 'yeti' and other creatures in the sea

July 1, 2008 |  7:40 am


For some years now, an international group of scientists has been going where no man has gone before to search out new oceanic critters and give them names. This enormous effort, undertaken by the Census of Marine Life, has been adding about 1,400 new species each year and has just launched a World Register of Marine Species, which has the appropriate acronym, WoRMS.

Rather than going for the glamour of discovering a new and majestic baleen whale, or abundant species of fish that will feed the world's poor, these scientists have mostly turned up yet-to-be-named worms, and snails, sponges, and tiny crustaceans. Scientists swear it can be fun to be paid to go on these research cruises, but much of their discoveries remain arcane. Mostly, they toil in relative obscurity.

Take this hairy-armed crab for instance. It was one of the more fun critters to be highlighted by the Census of Marine Life as part of its announcement that it was half-way toward its goal of assigning or validating the names of about 230,000 marine species by 2010. This little guy was sucked up by a "slurp gun" on the deep-sea submersible Alvin on the Pacific-Antarctic Ridge in the Southern Ocean, from a depth of about 7,300 feet. It was given the proper name Kiwa hirsuta, after the goddess of shellfish in Polynesian mythology. But scientists have also affixed a nickname — the "yeti crab" — because of its hairy appearance.

Not a bad attention-getting effort, rating articles in the scientific press and even some short stories in mainstream newspapers. It's not every day, after all, that reputable scientists from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute or other august institutions tell the world they found Yeti — from the deep.

But marine scientists might take a cue from a terrestrial researcher who has hit the big time in finding and naming eight-legged critters on land. Biologist Jason Bond of Eastern Carolina University has apparently agreed, after considerable on-the-air badgering, to name a trapdoor spider after television comedian Stephen Colbert from "The Colbert Report."

Could a deep-sea worm be far behind?

-- Kenneth R. Weiss

Photo: Yeti crab. Credit: Census of Marine Life