Fisherman's unusual catch makes a valuable contribution to marine science

Strange creature identified as a giant planktonic phyllosoma

A Saturday morning fishing expedition for a Durban man ended in a scramble for marine scientists and a valuable contribution to research data.

At the start of the holiday season, uShaka Sea World received a phone call asking for the expertise of a marine scientist

"We were fishing from a boat off Durban this morning and brought up a weird-looking animal, sort of like a spider and it’s see-through, and quite big," said the caller. He reported that the creature had walked around on the boat for a while before dying and beginning to dry out.

Jone Porter, director of education at uShaka Sea World, took the call from Clinton Stighlingh and asked whether he could bring the strange creature in for identification, to which he agreed.

Clinton was fishing at a depth of about 180 metres when the then unidentified creature clung to his sardine bait. From the initial description Jone thought it sounded like a crustacean and encouraged Clinton to send her a photo to help her identify it correctly.

The first photo revealed a weird marine animal that Jone had never seen before. It was about the size of the palm of a man’s hand, with ten legs and three body parts. "My immediate reaction was that someone might be playing a prank," says Jone.

However, Clinton arrived the following day with his prize specimen and Jone immediately called Oceanographic Research Institute senior scientists Johan Groeneveld and Fiona MacKay to try to identify the creature.

They identified it as a phyllosoma and sent images to Taiwan for confirmation before sending samples for DNA barcoding. Taiwanese scientists confirmed that the creature was the larvae of the sculptured mitten lobster (Parribacus antarcticus), a member of the slipper lobster family, found in the tropics and southern sub-tropics. The last time a specimen such as this was identified by South African scientists was in the 1970s. 

The adult grows to about 20cm in length and is considered too small to be targeted for commercial purposes. It is sometimes accidently taken in nets set for spiny lobsters.

A marine scientist holds up the phyllosoma to show its size

The creature is a giant planktonic phyllosoma, which has one of the largest larvae in marine invertebrates. The larvae spend several months in oceanic waters. 

Minimal studies have been carried out on the planktonic phyllosoma phase, with identification problems due to lack of detailed morphological descriptions hindering species identification in many plankton samples. Recent efforts to identify phyllosoma larvae using DNA barcoding have been more successful in identifying the species.

This unusual find contributes to the genetic mapping of ocean currents and uShaka Sea World is grateful to Clinton for his contribution to marine science.

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