Miniature deep sea animals discovered off the Australian coast almost three decades ago are puzzling scientists, who say the organisms have proved impossible to categorise. Academics at the Natural History of Denmark have appealed to the world scientific community for help, saying that further information on Dendrogramma enigmatica and Dendrogramma discoides could answer key evolutionary questions. Jim Drury has more.
Found off the Tasmanian coast in 1986, they've been nicknamed 'deep sea mushrooms'. In fact they're two species of miniature animal defying all scientific attempts at classification. SOUNDBITE (English) JEAN JUST, RETIRED ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR AT NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM OF DENMARK, SAYING: "You can see that it looks like a little mushroom, that's why it's been called the 'deep sea mushroom'. It's got nothing to do with mushrooms, of course. It's just that it has this little hat and it has this stalk." Professor Jean Just of the Natural History Museum of Denmark led the Tasmanian expedition. SOUNDBITE (English) JEAN JUST, RETIRED ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR AT NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM OF DENMARK, SAYING: "They're classified as two new species, which are put in a new genus which is called Dendogramma and in a new family called Dendrogrammatidae. That's all we can do at the moment. You will see in the papers that it is followed by a little Latin, two words that's called 'incertae sedis' and that basically means we haven't got any idea where they belong." Olesen and colleague Reinhardt Møbjerg Kristensen think the Dendrogrammatidae could be an early branch on the tree of life. But proving it is difficult. SOUNDBITE (English) JØRGEN OLESEN, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR AT NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM OF DENMARK, SAYING: "Maybe we can get DNA out of the specimens that we do have. We hope for that but the advice we have got until now is that it will be very very difficult. But there might still be fragments of DNA still available in our materials." Another trip to the south-east Australian continental slope would be expensive. So the trio have launched an appeal to the world's major museums to look through their own deep sea collections. SOUNDBITE (English) JEAN JUST, RETIRED ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR AT NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM OF DENMARK, SAYING: "All of them have lots and lots of deep sea material that has not been identified and I'd be surprised if there wasn't some of these animals inside one or two of these collections." The trio believe the Dendrogrammatidae could hold important clues about evolution, and hope scientists from around the world can help them uncover the truth behind these tiny creatures.