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An Exquisite New Species found on Ebay

Chris Vallance | 00:23 UK time, Monday, 4 September 2006

coppardsmall.jog.jpgDr Simon Coppard has an unusual claim to fame: he's identified a new species of sea urchin, but he did so not by dredging the depths of the sea, but by trawling the pages of the auction website Ebay. I interviewed Simon about his extraordinary find at the Natural History Museum in London where he works for the marvellously titled International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature: it's the organisation that governs the naming of animals. Sitting in his quiet office sequestered away from the crowds of school children milling round the diplodocus skeleton in the entrance hall I felt, rather foolishly, as though I were eavesdropping on the office where God decided what to call each member of his newly minted creation. This was, after all, the place where animals officially get their names

Simon told me he was first alerted to the new urchin in 2004 by the thriving community of shell collectors on the web. It's easy to see why the little urchin caught the eye of Ebay users. Even the pickled specimen he showed me had preserved its brilliant colours. The purple marks on the golf ball sized shell had a near ultra-violet intensity and its narrow spines are striped red and white.View Image Here

When they approached Dr Coppard the collectors had certainly found the right man to identify the new creature. As well as working for ICZN he's a marine biologist specializing in the spiky echinoderms. But the new urchin wasn't one he had seen before and as Simon and his co-author Heinke Schultz reviewed the literature it was clear they had a new species.

Of course this raised the thorny issue of what to call it. In chatting to Simon it's clear he's not a fan of novel names: he mentioned a monkey that had the misfortune to be named after a Casino and a beetle named after the current president of the United States with a rather disdainful air: "It's better to give a decent scientific name based on the characteristics of the animal." He told me. And so in the end the purple and red urchin was called Coelopleurus Exquisitus - a fitting name because it is an exquisite thing when viewed up close.

The new name also had an affect on the value of the urchin on Ebay jumping from $8 to $138 following the publication of the research in the journal Zootaxa. It seems an coelopleurus would not be as sweet by any other name.

Naturally there is concern where this new urchin came from and if it is being dredged up from the depths, the affect that may have on its numbers. " The collection and sale of these urchins should be regulated and monitored otherwise we may decimate the populations before we know much more about it.", Simon told me.

Finally Ebay isn't the only piece of the internet of interest to the scientists in Simon's group. Apparently different scientists sometimes accidentally name the same species twice, leading to confusion that then has to be unravelled by ICZN. Their new project Zoobank is a very Web2.0 solution asking scientists to register new discoveries and thereby harnessing the expertise of all those who participate in the project. In much the same way that Wikipedia maintains the standard and relevance of definitions.

However, before you log on to rename Tibbles as Sharpes Wildecat entry to Zoobank depends upon publication in a peer reviewed paper. So you must first catch your hare before you can turn into soup. And sadly the chances of even the most dedicated Ebayer finding another new species are slim, "I think it's unlikely that there are many species to be found on Ebay", said Dr Coppard.

The interview will air on Tuesday's pods and blogs segment

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