Four New Algae Species Discovered in Hawaii

February 26, 2016

New species of deep-water algae, Umbraulva kuaweuweu, photographed by diver at 277 feet off Lisianski Island in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Credit: Brian Hauk/NOAA

Earlier this month, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced the discovery of four new algae species in Hawaiian waters. Scientists working with their Office of National Marine Sanctuaries collected some of these fascinating species in deep water within the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument and some off the main Hawaiian islands.

According to the scientists, the algae was plentiful and large in size, despite living at 200-400 feet below the surface where algae doesn't often grow because of the low light levels. Known in Hawaiian as "limu," these marine algae looked almost identical to those found and harvested in shallow waters, such as the limu pālahalaha (Ulva lactuca), or sea lettuce species. Despite how difficult it would be to tell them apart by looking at them, their genetic makeup is different. The distinctions were made via a DNA analysis led by Dr. Spalding of the University of Hawaii, who has been working with the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. She and her colleagues at the University of Hawaii and University of Washington's Friday Harbor Laboratories were able to isolate the genetic differences .

The discovery is an exciting one, because limu is an important part of our ecosystem, providing food for many marine animals including the Hawaiian green sea turtle and the endangered Hawaiian monk seal. Not only that, but limu is involved in Hawaiian culture in many different ways. It has been an important food source since the days of the ancient Hawaiians and is also used in ceremonies and as adornments in hula.

Scientists conferred with the Native Hawaiian community for meaningful names in honor of Hawaiian culture. For example, one was named Ulva iliohaha, which refers to the foraging behavior of the Hawaiian monk seal.

If you'd like to take a look, follow this link to see images of the algae on NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries website. Hopefully we'll hear about many more exciting discoveries from NOAA and other marine scientists here in Hawaii. In fact, we support peer reviewed marine scientists for their discoveries through our 100 percent research direct program. You can learn more about our donation recipients here. In the meantime, we look forward to welcoming you aboard one of our Maui ocean tours where you can get out and explore Hawaii's spectacular reefs yourself. Mahalo!

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