A clam discovered in the waters of Quatsino Sound 10 years ago has been recognized as a new species, and its home waters were honoured in the name given to the unique bivalve.
Thanks to the sharp eye of Royal BC Museum Curator of Invertebrates Melissa Frey the specimen was found within the Royal BC Museum’s collection, where had lain undisturbed since 2004.
“When I first saw the specimen, I suspected it was special – turned out there appeared to be no similar species from this coast in the existing taxonomic literature, suggesting that indeed this species was new to science,” Frey said.
The clam, collected by Fisheries and Oceans Canada at about 1,000 metres depth off of Quatsino Sound in 2004, is now a one-of-a-kind find.
The discovery “goes to show how little we know about the ocean environment that sustains us,” said Jackie Hildering, the local marine researcher who blogs as the Marine Detective. “The relevance of the discovery is that, when one considers 95 per cent of the ocean has yet to be seen by human eyes, it’s not surprising to see this kind of discovery — it forces us into a proper humility.”
Hildering pointed out that the unique conditions around North Vancouver Island are conducive to the evolution of separate species, but discovering these unknown species requires an expert eye. “We know more about the moon than our own oceans,” she said. “We’re at the stage of not only finding new marine organisms, but we’re finding new marine ecosystems.
“It shows how little we know about our life-sustaining seas. It shows we should proceed with caution, yet we have this onslaught.”
The museum said that the discovery of a new species of marine invertebrate is rare; Frey estimates it occurs about twice per year for British Columbia ecosystems.
The first telltale sign that the clam is unique is in its shell, which has unusual scalloping, or curved projections, on an edge.
Further unique traits not so plain to the naked eye were also identified by Dr Graham Oliver, a bivalve expert at the National Museum of Wales, who, with Frey, co-authored a recent article in the journal Zootaxa announcing the new species.
The species’ scientific name, Ascetoaxinus quatsinoensis, is a tribute to both its curious shape and its home.
The find also highlights the importance of museum collections.
Worldwide, millions of specimens are collected and deposited into museums for long-term, safe storage. From there, experts have the opportunity to borrow and study the samples for scientific research. The process to identify stored specimens can take years, or even decades, due to the large volume of materials collected and the limited number of experts. .
“Resulting discoveries highlight why our natural history collections are so valuable. Sometimes people question the purpose of keeping preserved animals,” Frey said. “But hidden within our collections are opportunities for discovery: new records, new attributes – even new species. Ultimately, these collections allow us to better understand and steward the spectacular diversity living within the ocean.”
The only sample in the world of this new species of clam is now taking its place among the thousands of specimens at the Royal BC Museum, adding to the collective knowledge of B.C.’s coastal waters.