Indian scientists discover new ‘mermaid’ plant species in Andamans archipelago

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The newly discovered green seaweed, Acetabularia jalakanyakae, is made up of just one gigantic cell with just one nucleus  (Felix Bast)
The newly discovered green seaweed, Acetabularia jalakanyakae, is made up of just one gigantic cell with just one nucleus (Felix Bast)

A new species of marine algae in the Andaman archipelago has been discovered by Indian scientists, with the name given to the species taking inspiration from The Little Mermaid fairy tale written by Hans Christian Anderson.

The green seaweed, which has a cap-like structure similar to an umbrella, has been named Acetabularia jalakanyakae, after the word ‘jalakanyaka’ which means ‘goddess of oceans’ or ‘mermaid’ in the Sanskrit language.

It is the first species of the genus Acetabularia discovered in India, Felix Bast, a scientist and professor from the Central University of Punjab in India, toldThe Independent.

“The newly discovered alga is so stunning; it has caps with intricate designs as if it were umbrellas of a mermaid,” said Mr Bast, who is also a lead author of a study into the new species.

The main characteristic of the newly discovered species is that the whole plant is made up of just one gigantic cell with just one nucleus, said researchers.

“Having such a giant cell is advantageous for molecular biologists who study cellular processes; they can see it and manipulate it with naked eye. For this reason, Acetabularia is considered a model organism,” the scientists said in a statement.

The marine algae’s DNA was analysed and compared with that of other plants in the lab for the study. The results of the analysis have been accepted for publication in the Indian Journal of Geo-Marine Sciences.

Mr Bast said he first stumbled upon the algae during a family trip to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in May 2019 and thought it was a variant of a known species.

After looking at the unique designs on the plant’s cap-like structures, however, he brought samples to the lab for analysis.

“After meticulous taxonomic work that lasted for more than one and a half years, it turned out to be a new species,” Mr Bast said in a statement.

“The discovery is quite exciting. This is the first algal discovery from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the last 37 years. The last algal species discovered from the islands was a species of microscopic green algae ‘desmids’ in 1984,” algologist Vandana Vinayaka from the Dr Hari Singh Gaur Central University, who was not involved in the study, said in a statement.

Since plants in the genus Acetabularia have rich calcium carbonate deposits that account for almost half their dry weight, scientists raised concerns that they are highly prone to ocean acidification caused by global greenhouse gas emissions.

As atmospheric carbon dioxide levels go up and the CO2 gas mixes with the surface ocean, the carbonic acid formed increases the acidity of oceans, according to scientists.

Ocean acidification can significantly impact calcium rich species, especially algal partners of coral reefs called Symbiodinium, leading to the collapse of such reefs into lifeless white deserts via coral bleaching, they added.

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