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CUNY Students Discover a New Species of Black Coral

by LIDA TUNESI

Deep in the Gulf of Mexico, a group of CUNY undergraduate students and a professor discovered a new species of black coral. Dubbed Distichopathes hickersonae, the creature has the distinctive thorny-looking black skeleton of a black coral, with bright green tissue.

Recent City Tech graduates Raven Johnson and Katherine Parra and Professor Mercer R. Brugler were authors on the paper that describes the new species, published in Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom. The study was a collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution, Cornell University, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the American Museum of Natural History.

Researchers, including City Tech alumnae Sheila Moaleman and Nicole Bellaflores-Mejia, first spotted the lime green coral colonies on a research cruise with NOAA in 2016. They found it 172 meters under the sea at Elver’s Bank, a marine area at the extreme edge of the continental shelf.

Unfortunately, there was a malfunction with the remotely operated vehicle and they couldn’t collect any samples.

In 2017, the scientists, including City Tech alumna Nadia Alomari, returned and collected several specimens of the unfamiliar species. They then studied the samples up close using scanning electron microscopy, and examined six different regions of the coral’s mitochondrial and nuclear genome.

Putting all this information together they were able to place it on a phylogenetic tree, determining its relationship to other black corals. It now sits in the Aphanipathidae family and under the genus Distichopathes. As for the species name, the researchers chose to name their discovery “hickersonae” after Emma Hickerson, a research coordinator with NOAA who invited the undergraduates to participate in the research cruises.