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Student discovers new species, auctions naming opportunity

October 28, 2014

  • Alex Young ’15
  • Alex Young ’15

With funding from the National Science Foundation, Alex Young ’15 spent his summer immersed in the forests of eastern Kansas. A typical day of his research internship—pursued after deriving inspiration from Wild Trees, a book recommended by William Swindells Sr. Professor of Natural Sciences Paulette Bierzychudek—included climbing trees and collecting moss and lichen samples for later laboratory study

Young’s research objective was to understand tree canopy distribution and taxonomy of tardigrades, known informally as water bears. These microscopic invertebrates, which vaguely resemble their much larger mammalian counterparts, are noted for an ability to survive extreme environmental conditions in diverse habitats on every continent. More than 900 species have been identified globally.

As he struggled to identify a particular tardigrade, Young was disinclined to assume that he had made a new discovery. But a thorough search through existing literature of reported species revealed that the specific morphological features of this tardigrade had never been documented.

“My research team and I were able to form the first manuscript describing this species,” Young said. “We took the opportunity to demonstrate a need for more unified, accurate, and detailed measuring and reporting of the phylum Tardigrada.”

Instead of picking a species name himself, Young chose to donate the honor via an auction benefitting Ethiopian forest conservation. The auction remains open through December 10, after which the highest bidder will collaborate with tardigrade experts to ensure observance of scientific naming protocols.

“I firmly believe that there are still whole worlds yet to be discovered, and would like to highlight the need to conserve the world’s biological assets,” Young said in an interview with the Tree Foundation. “I can think of no better way to promote forest conservation than to offer the naming of this top predator to preserve entire swaths of forests in Ethiopia.”

Katrina Staaf ’16 contributed to this story.

Name the Tardigrade Species Biology Department