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UMF’s Nancy Prentiss discovers new species

Newly discovered polychaete (Turbocavus secretus) (Photo courtesy of Nancy Prentiss)

Newly discovered polychaete (Turbocavus secretus). (Photo courtesy of Nancy Prentiss)

Nancy Prentiss, UMF lecturer in biology.

Nancy Prentiss, UMF lecturer in biology, holds samples of her discovery.

FARMINGTON - A University of Maine at Farmington faculty member and researcher has discovered of a new genus and species of marine creature.

For years, Nancy Prentiss has spent much of her off-campus time in St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands teaching and mentoring UMF students, working as an ecology camp science educator at the Virgin Islands National Park and pursuing scientific research.

In the summer of 2010, she was snorkeling in St. John’s pristine Hurricane Hole, designated as the Coral Reef Monument, when she turned over the last of hundreds of rocks that day and was stunned.

“I had never seen fanworms like these before and knew immediately I was looking at something special,” Prentiss said.

The underside of the rock was covered with coiled calcium carbonate tubes that each protected a brilliant red and white colored polychaete or marine worm.

“I have hundreds of specimens in my collection and have seen thousands in their natural environment, but I instantly knew this was exciting, like finding buried treasure,” she said.

This was just the beginning for Prentiss as she began the difficult job of determining what she’d found. “It’s a lengthy and detailed process and it often takes a collaborative team of scientists to determine if a discovery is a new genus and species,” Prentiss explained. She worked with experts from Greece and the Netherlands to properly describe and identify the specimen and presented her preliminary findings at an international conference in Australia.

The team obtained DNA gene sequences, scanning electron mircrosope and micro-ct scan images of the marine worms and determined that it was indeed a new genus and species of polychaete.

“It is important to fully document all species as much as possible,” Prentiss said. “Globally, marine habitats are disappearing and the world is losing complex ecosystems that have not yet been explored."

The lead author of the paper, recently published in the journal Zootax, Prentiss found it very humbling to work with a team of international experts. “The whole process was a wonderful learning opportunity,” she said, who also works with UMF student research assistants to further the marine worm study.

The newly discovered worm (Turbocavus secretus) is named for the location (Turbocavus = Hurricane Hole) in which it was found. Specimens of the new fanworm species are now permanently deposited in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

Research reported in this project was supported, in part, by an Institutional Development Award (IDeA) from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health.

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21 Responses »

  1. Congrats Nancy!

  2. Nancy


    Your interview brought me back to intertidal field trips in northern California and those great moments when students found a beautiful nudibranch or polychaete.


  3. What wonderful news! Congratulations, Nancy!

  4. How exciting! Congratulations!

  5. Super cool Nancy, congratulations! ♫

  6. Excellent achievement Nancy!!

  7. You make Farmington proud!!

  8. Congratulations! This rocks.

  9. Great work, Ms. Prentiss !

  10. Fantastic Nancy! Congratulations!

  11. Very Exciting! Thanks for the discovery.

  12. What a wonderful thing to discover not just a new species but a new genus as well! Congratulations!

  13. Nancy, I am so excited for you.

  14. Nancy,
    So proud of you friend! Heard you on public radio this morning...good for you! What an accomplishment!

  15. Fantastic Nancy! This is amazing!

  16. How exciting!

  17. Nancy! Janet MacColl's sister in law here...Sarah and Ed...remember?

    WOW! WE are headed to St. John for 2 seeks Sunday. WE are actually having coffee with Carolyn Rogers (!) . We always go to St. John, and we snorkel in Hurricane Hole in the mangroves and we have a fun video with lots of good stuff on it. Email me!

  18. What a great find in such a special place!

  19. Wow, Nancy...this is so exciting! Congratulations! Now you are famous, and I can say, "I know her! She's a friend!" Way to do not only Farmington, but the entire state proud!

  20. Congratulations on your incredible find, Nancy. Very cool indeed!

  21. Congratulations, Nancy!