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Gnarly tribute to Bob Marley: Parasite named for reggae star

Elizabeth Brill

A Caribbean fish known as the French grunt is infested with gnathiid isopods.

The late Jamaican reggae star Bob Marley is the latest celebrity to be honored with a scientific species name. It's not the most glamorous species — in fact, it's a blood-feeding fish parasite — but there's no question that Gnathia marleyi knows how to "stir it up" in Caribbean coral reefs.

It's the Caribbean connection that prompted the name, which is listed along with a description of the species in the June 6 issue of the journal Zootaxa.

"I named this species, which is truly a natural wonder, after Marley because of my respect and admiration for Marley's music," Paul Sikkel, a marine biologist at Arkansas State University, said in a news release from the National Science Foundation. "Plus, this species is as uniquely Caribbean as was Marley."

G. marleyi is a type of gnathiid isopod, a small crustacean that hides in corners of eastern Caribbean coral reefs. When the right kinds of fish come by, the juveniles jump out and attach themselves to suck their blood. But when they grow into adults, they stop feeding. "We believe that adults subsist for two to three weeks on the last feedings they had as juveniles and then die, hopefully after they have reproduced," Sikkel said.

Sikkel and his colleagues found specimens of the tiny isopods about 10 years ago in the U.S. Virgin Islands. They're so common there that Sikkel assumed that the species had already been described — but after he sent a specimen to another member of his research team, Nico J. Smit of South Africa's North-West University, he received word that the critter hadn't been written up in the literature.

John Artim / Arkansas State Univ.

This close-up shows an adult male gnathiid. The adult males look entirely different from the juveniles and are used by taxonomists to identify species.

Researchers went through the laborious process of raising the juvenile isopods up to adulthood so they could be properly described. Specimens of G. marleyi will be housed indefinitely at the American Museum of Natural History in New York for reference.

The reason why Sikkel and his colleagues have been spending so time with Caribbean coral-reef parasites is because they suspect that such species may serve as an indicator of coral-reef health. Coral degradation may create habitats more conducive for parasites to attack their fishy hosts. Those parasites, in turn, may transmit blood-borne diseases and accelerate the decline of fish communities.

That's not to say that G. marleyi is all bad: Sikkel points out that they are "the most important food item for cleaner fishes, and thus key to understanding marine cleaning symbioses." (It's worth noting that other breeds of isopods can grow to horror-movie dimensions.)

Bob Marley died of cancer in 1981, at the age of 36, and it's an open question whether he would have welcomed having a parasite named in his honor. As cartoonist Gary Larson said after a species of louse was named Strigiphilus garylarsoni, "You have to grab these opportunities when they come along." But even if Marley fans are not also fans of gnathiid isopods, they can take heart in the fact that Marley has other critters named after him — such as the "Bob Marley sponge" (Pipestela candelabra), which is found in Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

More about celebrity species names:

Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.