MN scientists discover new species at Lake Superior's Apostle Islands

The new species has a cell wall or shell made of biologically produced glass.
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Researchers with the Science Museum of Minnesota have discovered a new species at the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Lake Superior.

Dr. Mark Edlund and Dr. David Burge discovered North America's newest species — a type of microscopic algae that has a cell wall or shell made of biologically produced glass — in the bottom of a shallow lagoon on the remote Outer Island off the shore of Bayfield, Wisconsin, a news release says.

The tiny species (it’s only 1/25th of a millimeter long and requires a microscope to be seen) has been named Semiorbis eliasiae in honor of Joan Elias, a retired water quality specialist from the National Park Service.

Living cells of Semiorbis eliasiae are joined in spherical colonies.

Living cells of Semiorbis eliasiae are joined in spherical colonies.

When Edlund and Burge found the living cells and colonies in a lagoon that was cut off from Lake Superior by a sandbar, they knew it was a type of Semiorbis. But when they compared it to other known types of Semiorbis using high-powered microscopy and shape analysis, they determined they’d found a new species.

Not only that, but Edlund and Burge’s description of the new species included the first-ever published picture of a living Semiorbis. The C-shaped cells, when alive, are joined together in spherical colonies that live on the bottom sediment of the shallow lagoon on Outer Island, the release says.

Cells of the new species Semiorbis eliasiae from Lake Superior’s Apostle Islands live in spherical colonies (center) and have spines and ridges on their outer surface when viewed in a light (left) or scanning electron (right) microscope.

Cells of the new species Semiorbis eliasiae from Lake Superior’s Apostle Islands live in spherical colonies (center) and have spines and ridges on their outer surface when viewed in a light (left) or scanning electron (right) microscope.

Historical studies by Edlund and the National Park Service show this new species has actually been living in the Outer Island lagoon since at least the 1950s.

But Semiorbis eliasiae’s future is uncertain. Recent storms have breached the sandbar that separates the lagoon from Lake Superior, the release notes. The sandbar has reformed, but the lagoon Semiorbis eliasiae calls home is much smaller than it used to be.

Edlund and Burge’s discovery was recently published in the international journal Diatom Research, leading to the new species being fully recognized.

For a new species to be fully recognized, it has to be published in a scientific journal and documented with descriptions of its characteristics and how it can be differentiated from other known species. Samples of the species also need to be permanently deposited in museum collections, like the Science Museum of Minnesota, the release says. 

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