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Newly Discovered 'Stargazing' Shrimp Always Looks to the Heavens

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A "stargazer shrimp" that always looks to the skies, through striped eyes like marbles has been discovered by biologists from the University of Capetown (UCT) in South Africa.

Stargazer mysids are only about half-an-inch long. The shrimp, also called stargazers by some people, is bright red, a color often used to warn potential predators of danger. The popular name of the species was provided by divers who first discovered the aquatic animal, seemingly staring endlessly upwards.

Shrimp possess compound eyes like insects, able to see in many directions at one time. These eyes do not have pupils or irises, making the appearance of a single pair of eyes looking upwards just an illusion. The unusual markings may have evolved by making the tiny crustaceans appear larger than they are, reducing predation. The appearance of eye-like markings is also present in some species of moths.   

Charles Griffiths, a biologist at the University of Capetown, was the first scientist to examine the unusual animal. He could not identify the tiny life form, and sent a sample to Karl Wittmann at the University of Vienna in Austria, who identified the creatures as a new species. The first shrimp sent to Wittmann were all males, and the researcher asked divers to collect female specimens. These divers collected shrimp in the area who looked different than the ones found previously, and sent them to  Austria. Instead of female stargazers, the biologist found the samples contained members of two previously-unknown species.

"I thought at least one of them must be a female. It's amazing that we're still finding so many new species in heavily dived waters like False Bay, right on our doorstep," Griffiths said.

Guido Zsilavecz was the first photographer to record the new species, and Mysidopsis zsilaveczi is named in his honor. He previously discovered the nudibranch, a form of bright green soft-bodied sea slug resembling the Sydney Opera House in Australia.

South Africa is home to many unusual species found nowhere else in the world. In many ways, only Australia can compare to that nation for diversity of life.

"This marine species richness is largely attributable to the diversity of habitat and the fact that South Africa is located at the confluence of three great oceans: the Indian, Atlantic and Southern Oceans," Rudy can der Elst of the Oceanographic Research Institute in Durban, South Africa, said.

Around 30 new marine species are discovered in waters off the coast of South Africa each year. Marine species in South African waters are now recovering from decades of overfishing in the 1950's and 1960's.

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