New species of shrimp found after ‘hitchhiking’ on ocean rock to south London museum
For more than a decade, nobody at the museum had any idea that the unusally fast-moving, zig-zagging shrimp they were feeding to the fish in their aquarium was a brand-new species that had never been seen before anywhere else in the world.
Smaller than a child’s fingernail, the new type of marine mysid crustacean has been discovered in a humble tank at the Horniman museum in London, where it has spent at least the past 12 years hiding in plain sight and “breeding like mad”.
The shrimp, which was named Heteromysis hornimani by Dr Daniel Abed-Navandi, a marine biologist at the University of Vienna, in honour of its place of discovery, is thought to have “hitchhiked” to the museum on an ocean rock many years ago. So far, the shrimp has never been found in nature, but is now present in every tank of the aquarium in the museum, where they like to “zip around” and “zig-zag” in a figure of eight.
“We’ve used them as a food source because they breed so prolifically,” said aquarium curator Dr Jamie Craggs, who had no idea they were an undiscovered species. “I’ve been here 12 years and they’ve been here all that time.”
The Horniman, in Forest Hill, south London, houses an eclectic collection of 350,000 objects covering anthropology, natural history and musical instruments. It is noted for its ethnography and music collections; one of its most famous exhibits is the large collection of stuffed animals. The aquarium showcases marine environments from around the world, from British ponds to Fijian coral reefs.
Craggs said that, “superficially”, the new shrimp looks very similar to the other shrimps in the aquarium – but move quite differently. “A figure-of-eight movement backwards and forwards is one of the defining characteristics of this shrimp. They’re also very fast-moving: a normal shrimp will sit on the bottom a little bit more.”
The discovery was made after the museum answered Abed-Navandi’s call-out for shrimp he could survey from around the world. “We sent him some samples and, lo and behold, it was a new species,” said Craggs.
He thinks the tiny size of the crustaceans may account for the fact that nobody has noticed that they exist before. “There’s still so much that is uncharted in our oceans.”
The museum is scheduled to reopen on 17 May, and the new shrimp will be on display – but because they’re so small and like to hide away in the dark, Craggs does not think it would be wise to give them their own dedicated tank. “You’d be somewhat underwhelmed.”
He is, however, looking forward to telling the remarkable story in words and images of how this shrimp got its name.
“Advancements in filtration technology mean aquariums are running as close to true ecosystems as we can get, creating a wealth of knowledge and ability to do research. Discovering this shrimp is testimony to that.”
A sample of Heteromysis hornimani from the museum has been sent to the Vienna Natural History Museum and preserved in ethanol as “the type specimen” for the species.