The Vizhinjam Bay, a busy fishing ground noted for its biodiversity-rich marine ecosystem, is home to the smallest sea cucumber in India, scientists have reported.
Biju Kumar of the Department of Aquatic Biology and Fisheries, University of Kerala, and his student Deepa Pillai stumbled upon the species while scouring the rocky coast during a biodiversity study in 2015.
The animal, which grows to a size of just 2 cm, is named Thyonina bijui , after Biju Kumar.
The specimen was identified as a new species by Professor Ahmed Thandar, School of Life Sciences, University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, while describing several species of sea cucumbers from the Indian Ocean.
The news about the discovery has been published in the international journal Zootaxa .
According to Dr. Kumar, this is the first species of sea cucumber endemic to the Kerala coast and is known only from Vizhinjam.
The animal inhabits shallow waters and has a barrel-shaped body.
It is reddish brown in colour, with plenty of tube feet all over the dorsal surface.
Sea cucumbers and starfish belong to the group of marine invertebrates called echinoderms.
Of the 179 sea cucumbers reported from India, 37 species have been recorded from the Kerala coast.
The larger species of sea cucumbers are overharvested for export as they are considered one of the culinary delicacies in China and many western countries.
The Government of India has listed all species of sea cucumbers (holothurians) under Schedule 1 of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, imposing a blanket ban on their harvesting from Indian waters.
Occurring only in marine ecosystems, the sea cucumber plays a critical role in ecosystem functioning by recycling nutrients and carbonates.
Often referred to as the earthworms of the sea, these animals are responsible for extensive shifting and mixing of substrate and recycling of sediments into animal tissue and nitrogenous waste which can be taken up by algae and sea grass.
Dr. Kumar feels that detailed investigations of the marine biodiversity of the Kerala coast, especially from the rocky shores and bays, would lead to the discovery of several new species.