Coral discovery named after our marine biologist Michelle

  • Date

    Fri 2 Mar 18

Dr Michelle Taylor

New species of coral are common discoveries in the deep sea, but it is not every day that a new species of coral is named after you.

However, marine biologist Dr Michelle Taylor, from our School of Biological Sciences, has been honoured with a namesake species, Thouarella taylorae.

Although the new found coral has her name, Michelle has not yet seen it in person. Her species is stored in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC, with Dr Stephen Cairns, an emeritus professor in Invertebrate Zoology. He used one of Michelle’s publications on octocorals to help him identify the coral as a new species and decided to name it after her.

“I am thrilled to have this honour,” said Michelle. “It was really touching, especially because he was my mentor for many years. He didn’t even tell me, I just saw the publication and thought ‘great a new species! Taylorae? That’s named after me!’ I was so surprised.”

Thouarella taylorae can be found 200-400 metres deep in the Hawaiian-Emperor seamount chain – a mostly undersea mountain range in the Pacific Ocean. The coral is white, looks like a feather, and stands at about 17cm high. Using scanning electron microscopes to examine the species closer, the polyps become more noticeable on each strand on the coral. Each polyp is only about a millimetre tall with 8 tentacles coming from each one.

Currently Michelle’s research is focused on deep sea connectivity and has led her on multiple expeditions around the world to study deep sea corals. Through her work she has also found and named many new species.

Explaining her passion for deep sea life she said: “I’m drawn to the unknown, we have a good idea of shallow water ecosystems function yet in the deep sea we have virtually no idea how they function. It’s also shocking that the deep sea is the biggest habitat on earth and we still don’t understand how it works. It’s our planet we should know.”

The deep sea is home to many undiscovered species, some species that may be up to 4,500 years old. Although the deep sea is up to 11km in depth, it still cannot escape human pollution.

“The ocean is the ultimate dumping site,” Michelle says, “The sad fact is I haven’t been on a single expedition where I haven’t seen some sign of human life in the deep sea. It’s important to keep our deep sea safe; it is part of our biogeochemical cycle.”