Georgia College professor and student name new species of amphipod

Microscopic image of amphipod that's similar to the new species.
I t may seem like scuds are the lowest creatures on earth.

And that’s because they are—literally—the lowest.

Scuds are bottom dwellers at the bottom of the food chain. They suck up nutrients in the muddy depths of lakes, rivers, streams, marsh and ocean—only to become food for larger aquatic invertebrates and fish.

About 10,000 different species of these shrimplike creatures are known to exist.

Now one more’s been added to the list.

Georgia College Assistant Professor of Biology Dr. Kristine White and junior environmental science major Sally Sir of Duluth have discovered an amphipod never before identified by anyone else. They found it in a collection of about 7,000 amphipods White collected in the mid-2000s as a post-doctoral student in Okinawa, Japan.

Dr. Kristine White and junior environmental major Sally Sir talk about their discovery.

They dissected their little ivory-colored scud—about 4 mm in size (imagine a stack of four dimes). They took 3D images of it with a DSLR camera on a stacked imaging system. They described and drew it. Most importantly, they gave it a name and sent the information off to the international journal, Zootaxa, where several peer reviewers will determine once-and-for-all whether it’s a new species. They should hear the news by August.

Until then, the organism’s new Latin name—bestowed by White for its hairy appearance—cannot be disclosed.

"I'm very excited," White said. "I was even more excited to have a student here to work on it. It was a group effort. We both decided together that this was a new species."

It feels really nice to be teaching a new taxonomist how to do this. This is a really great example of the undergraduate research that we do here and a really nice way to show that students really are involved in research, and they’re not just washing dishes in the lab.
– Dr. White

Dr. White with Sir in the lab.
Dr. White with Sir in the lab.
Early on freshman year, Sir approached White after a departmental meet-and-greet, where professors told students about their research. Not many undergraduates want to work with amphipods, so White was thrilled to have Sir onboard. She taught her how to dissect the small creatures, how to identify a species, how to draw and identify parts.

...every day, she introduces me to something new.
– Sally Sir
Sir spends 10 to 30 hours a week in the lab. From the start, she was hooked.

“I just thought they were just kind of neat little aquatic things I’d never seen before—something different than you’d come in contact with in your daily life. I just thought it was interesting. So, I met with Dr. White again and, every day,” Sir said, “she introduces me to something new.”

By sophomore year, Sir had helped single out and describe a completely new species.

She recalls the day they found the hairy little scud.

The team was studying the professor’s multiple collections from Japan. As a post-doctoral student, White had described 24 new species in Okinawa, an area she called “uncharted territory” for amphipods.

“Most people haven’t looked in a lot of habitats. If you look” for amphipods, White said, “you’ll find them.”

Her assortment of amphipods laid dormant for years, as White began a career in higher education at the University of Tampa. She joined Georgia College in 2019 and now uses her post-doctoral collection to teach Sir taxonomy, the science of classifying organisms.

Using dual-head microscopes, White and Sir simultaneously saw their unique specimen. It was notable for its feathery setae—or hairy bristles—which were more numerous than usual. It also had a leg without serrated or jagged edges.

The team knew at once they’d found something special. It stood out from the others in a “funky” way, Sir said.

It took weeks to verify. They scoured science literature and identification keys on amphipods. But they couldn’t find anything else like it—which says a lot. Amphipods are part of a larger group called arthropods, which make up 75 percent of all animals on earth.

“Every paper and key that we used was a dead end,” White said. “It never matched the known species. So, after a lot of literature we decided it was, in fact, a new species.”

A student studies a research poster on amphipods.
A student studies a research poster on amphipods.
Scuds—microscopic in length to as large as 5 inches—swim here and there unnoticed by most people. But they are vitally important. Their sudden disappearance from an area can be an environmental indicator of trouble—a new predator, toxin or pollutant in waters that could eventually affect the fish we eat.

“Amphipods are especially sensitive to toxins and pollutants in the environment. So, if there is some type of new pollution,” White said, “they would show it, usually by dwindling numbers.”

This fascinates Sir as an environmental science major. Someday, she may want to be an amphipod taxonomist and keep an eye on the health of marine ecosystems.

She feels “incredibly lucky” to be at Georgia College, where undergraduate research—as early as freshman year—is encouraged. She’s learned to use identification keys, dissect and draw small organisms, illustrate and take images of amphipods. She’s comfortable with microscopes and more confident overall. Most importantly, White said, Sir has learned invaluable critical thinking skills, seeing research from step one through to publication.

She’s now helping White gather dissected parts of the new species for permanent storage at the National Museum of Nature and Science in Tokyo.

“It really kind of clicked,” Sir said. “I really love the learning and, every time I came in, I was just learning so much.”

It really fulfilled a lot of things I was looking for in research, and Dr. White is the best mentor I could ask for. She is so incredibly patient with me. She’s just been really encouraging, and I’ve enjoyed it every day. It’s been great.
– Sally Sir