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Three previously unknown sea creatures have been found by Georgia Southern University scientists at Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary.

The creatures are types of sea squirts — also known as tunicates — bottom-dwelling invertebrate animals that are part of the diversity of species found at the sanctuary.

“The fact that the three animals have never before been described by science and may well be new species is an exciting discovery,” says Gray’s Reef Sanctuary Manager Reed Bohne.

More samples will have to be examined before scientists can definitively say they have a new species, but the animals are unlike any known tunicates.

“It makes you wonder if these species exist in other places. It suggests that we have something unique to Gray’s Reef,” said Daniel Gleason, associate professor of biology at Georgia Southern University. “That makes it even more worthwhile to conserve that habitat.”

Gleason and fellow GSU scientists Alan Harvey and Stephen Vives have worked for three years to document all the invertebrates at Gray’s Reef in a field guide. So far, 350 specimens have been collected and photographed.

The guide will eventually be available on line for use by both other scientists and recreational divers interested in identifying what they see at Gray’s Reef.

The new tunicates were collected by Gleason and four students – Lauren Wagner, Rob Ruzicka, Chris Freeman, Sarah Mock — under a special permit to conduct scientific work in the sanctuary. It’s against sanctuary regulations to collect invertebrates from the sanctuary without a permit.

When Gleason and his students could not fully identify the mysterious tunicates, they turned to Russian tunicate expert Karen Sanamyan for assistance. Out of dozens of samples from Gray’s Reef, Sanamyan identified the three as being previously undescribed species.

Among all the invertebrates — animals without backbones — tunicates are more closely related to mankind than any others, Gleason said.

Both tunicates and humans are members of the broad class of living creatures called chordates, that at some time during their lifecycles share a number of physical features including neural cords that run the length of their bodies. In humans, the feature is expressed in the presence of the spinal cord.

The science being done by Gleason and his students is just one example of the variety of uses that are balanced within the management of the sanctuary.

Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary encompasses approximately 17 square nautical miles. The area earned sanctuary designation in 1981.

Gray’s Reef consists of sandstone outcroppings and ledges up to ten feet in height, in a predominantly sandy, flat-bottomed sea floor. The live bottom and ledge habitat support an abundant reef fish and invertebrate community.