'Living Fossil' Discovered in Pacific Ocean

A species of ancient eel has recently been discovered living in a reef off the coast of the Republic of Palau in the Pacific Ocean.

Scientists say that the eel has retained characteristics that have only been seen in the fossils of eels from the Mesozoic era, when dinosaurs walked the Earth and that it is completely unrelated to any of the 819 species and 19 families of modern eels living today.

They have dubbed the eel a "living fossil." The term was coined by Charles Darwin in his book, On the Origin of Species, to describe species that have very slow evolutionary processes and do not undergo dramatic changes in characteristics over millions of years.

"The eel looks so bizarre -- large head with relatively short body and various unique, internal characters -- that no ichthyologist, including us, correctly identified it as a member of true eel at first sight," co-author Masaki Miya told Discovery News. Miya is curator of fishes and an adjunct associate professor at Chiba University's Natural History Museum and Institute.

The eel is 1.7 inches long, has a striking reddish brown color and a ribbon of white along its iridescent fins. Its primitive features include: disproportionately large head, a short compressed body, collar-like openings on the gills, rays on the caudal fin and a jawbone tip called a premaxilla.

The extreme uniqueness of this eel has granted it its own species, Protoanguilla Palau, coming from the Greek word "protos," for first, and the Latin word anguilla, for eel. It also has its own taxonomic family, Protoanguillidae. Scientists estimate that the origin of the eel dates back to 200 million years ago.

"The discovery of this extraordinary and beautiful new species of eel underscores how much more there is to learn about our planet," said Dave Johnson, ichthyologist at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.

Discovered in March of last year, Miya led a team of divers and scientists to an underwater cave in Palau, where eight specimens were collected with hand nets and lamps and taken for DNA testing to trace the eel's genetic history.

Co-author Hitoshi Ida explained that the cave in which the eel was found is considerably younger than the eel itself, and may be the remains of the habitat that the eel lived in during the Mesozoic era.

Scientists are now urging for conservation of the area, to protect the eel, which is one of only ten species that can be found in that location.