Ocean species found in Hudson

Genetic fingerprints of single-cell creatures found in upper river

October 21, 2001|By Dina Cappiello | Dina Cappiello,ALBANY TIMES UNION

ALBANY, N.Y. - They have lived in the mud of the Hudson River probably for hundreds of years, so small that they went undetected by previous explorers armed with only a sieve and a microscope.

Even modern scientists, until a couple of years ago, were unaware they could survive in fresh water, although they have inhabited the world's oceans for 500 million years.

Exploration has changed.

Two state scientists, with the help of crew and students aboard a replica of Henry Hudson's Half Moon, are using cutting-edge technology in the hunt for new species. The technique can map out the DNA of organisms invisible to the naked eye from a glob of Hudson River muck.

"Four hundred years ago [explorers] were trying to find something. We are doing the same just using different tools," said Andrea Habura, a microbiologist with the state Department of Health's Wadsworth Center.

Eight new species

So far, they have discovered eight new species in the Hudson River without even seeing the creature, only its genetic fingerprint.

"We go in and say, `We don't care what you look like. Just tell us who you are,'" Habura said.

Most of the species discovered have never before been catalogued by scientists. Two were falsely identified: one as an amoeba, the other as a microscopic plant.

All belong to a group of organisms known as foraminifera, single-celled creatures that take on multiple shapes by building shells of sand, calcium or other materials.

Foraminifera, or forams as they are called for short, have been studied in the oceans for 400 years. But only in the last two or three years have scientists looked for them in fresh water.

In the Hudson River, two New York University scientists catalogued different species of foraminifera during the 1960s but stopped at Peekskill. This time around, scientists are dividing the river into a grid that will be sampled from the New York Harbor to Albany.

The hypothesis is that forams invaded the Hudson from the Atlantic Ocean, adapting and taking on different shapes.

`No one has looked'

"No one has looked and no one thought they were there," Habura said. "We think they are an important part of the food web in the Hudson that has been ignored."

Habura herself didn't know they could be as far north as Albany, where the water is completely freshwater. She got the idea testing the DNA technique on sediment from the bottom of Washington Park Lake. Forams turned up there.

"It was a happy lab accident," said Sam Bowser, a cell biologist with the Wadsworth Center, which has studied forams for 15 years, mainly in Antarctica.

The two scientists teamed up with the Half Moon because one of the ship's volunteers worked in the lab.

For the students aboard the ship, which sampled for foraminifera for the first time this year, it has been an exercise in practical science.

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