Florida scientist stumbles on previously unknown species of egg-sucking sea slug

The person least impressed by his discovery is the UF scientist himself. He says Florida is full of undiscovered new species, if only people will look for them.
Published June 18
Updated June 18

Gustav Paulay was on a field trip to Cedar Key with his University of Florida biology students when he discovered something no scientist had ever seen before.

Paulay, the invertebrate zoology coordinator for the Florida Museum of Natural History, always takes his students to the same sandbar on the Levy County island so they can search its tidal flats for specimens. This particular day in 2017, he noticed "these egg masses with little slugs in them." he said.

The slug was about the size of a grain of rice, but he knew it was something special. He kept saying, "Score! Score! Score!" when he spotted it..

When he later emailed a friend to ask about what he'd spotted, he learned he had discovered a previously unidentified species of egg-sucking sea slug — the first one found in this century, and the first from this side of the nation.

There are only two other egg-sucking sea slugs, one first found in 1923 from the northeastern Pacific and one spotted in 1837 from the Mediterranean.

Most sea slugs are enthusiastic vegetarians, to the point where they even turn green and resemble plants. But the three egg-suckers prey on the eggs of their fellow slugs and snails

The newly discovered Florida variety has a tooth nubbin, which it punches into jelly-like egg masses to suck out the eggs or embryos like a toddler jamming a straw into a juice pouch and sucking it dry.

A description of the newly discovered species has just been published in the science journal Zootaxa. The formal description names the new species "Olea hensoni," after Muppet master Jim Henson.

The person least impressed by this accomplishment is Paulay.

Florida is so crowded with people moving in and tourists wandering around that most people would never expect to hear that something new had been discovered, unless it was a strain of mosquito-borne disease.

Paulay has discovered new species before, though, and says Florida beaches have "gobs and gobs of new species" if anyone takes the time to look for them.

"We have so many new species around us that it's ridiculous," he said. "Florida just hasn't had the attention in marine life that you'd expect."

His students, though, found it exciting, he said. So did his co-author, Patrick Krug of California State, the scientist he'd emailed to ask about the slug he'd found. According to Paulay, Krug's response was: "Oh my God! You've got something weird that's not known” from that region.

Krug said it was particularly surprising that a member of this group would show up in the waters around Florida "because the other two species are from cold, northern waters,” he said. He suspects the Florida slug is a relic of a very old lineage that got trapped in the Caribbean long ago and became isolated from its Pacific relatives — and went rogue, becoming "almost full-blown cannibal.”

“These are like the Venus fly traps of the slug world," he said. "They’ve switched from being harmless, friendly creatures to predators.”

It was Krug's idea to name the newly discovered Florida species after Henson, a notion that came to him while thinking about its creamy brown to yellow coloring – a standout in a group that is iconically green.

“It made me think of Kermit the Frog’s song It’s Not Easy Being Green,” he said. “That made me laugh because I remember being a kid, eating eggs for breakfast and watching Sesame Street.”

Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

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