UNAM scientists discover new sea species in Cozumel
The species was first discovered in 2006 - Photo: Courtesy of UNAM

UNAM scientists discover new sea species in Cozumel

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UNAM experts calculate this new sea species arrived at its Quintana Roo cave 4 billion years ago

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Scientists of the Sea Sciences and Limnology (ICML) of the National Autonomous University of Mexico discovered a new cave sea species in danger of extinction that lives in the “El Aerolito” cave in Cozumel, Quintana Roo.

This animal, known as “cave brittlestar,” is the first endemic species of its kind in Mexico and the third in the world, which, according to expert calculations could be in danger of disappearing due to human activities like tourism.

Brittlestars are a member of the echinoderm family, made up of a group of sea animals that include sea urchins, lilies, and sea cucumbers.

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Brittlestars have a small, flattened body made up by a round disc and five thin, long arms that measure between 18 and 20 centimeters and that look like snakes,” explain the scientists. They produce oxygen in the seabed, model the texture of the seafloor, and are part of the diet of other organisms.”

Francisco Alonso Solís Marín, head of the National Collection of Echinoderms of the ICML, explained that the brittlestar arrived at the cave approximately four billion years ago. It was discovered in 2006 but it was revealed until the obtention of its nuclear DNA in 2019. Through years of research, it is believed that the ancestors of this species sent larvae to explore the cave, where they mutated and generated a new species that installed in the depths of the cave.

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“El Aerolito” is characterized for being a “system with tunnels full of freshwater, whose entry is a cenote; it is 18 meters deep and is in perpetual darkness,” reports UNAM. So specialists think that the “ophionereis commutabilis” can produce its own light through a bioluminescence process.

Solís Marín, who is also one of the authors of the discovery, explains that the lack of solar radiation inside the cave causes the development of bacterias that are the main food of these animals. Another of the factors that could cause the loss of this species, in addition to tourism, is the lack of water inside the cave.

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The ICML representative stressed the relevance of echinoderms who “are important for being a food source, while in the pharmaceutical industry they are studied for having active principles that are able to inhibit the growth of carcinogenic cells.”

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