"The discovery of this new order of Cnidaria -- a phylum that includes jellyfish, corals, sea anemones, and their relatives -- is the equivalent to finding the first member of a group like primates or rodents," said Estefanía Rodríguez, an assistant curator in the Museum’s Division of Invertebrate Zoology.
Rodríguez headed up the anenome research and is the author of a new study detailing the discovery of the new order. She and her fellow researchers didn't set out to discover a new order, but were simply trying to get a better picture of the evolutionary relationships between different anemones species.
"Anemones are very simple animals,” Rodríguez explained. “Because of this, they are grouped together by their lack of characters -- for example, the absence of a skeleton or the lack of colony-building, like you see in corals."
While piecing together the evolutionary tree of some 112 anemones species, the scientists discovered that one species didn't fit. The DNA make up of Relicanthus daphneae, previously thought to be one of the ocean's largest sea anemone, was a stark departure from the other anemone species.
Without a proper classification home, researchers placed Relicanthus daphneae in an order all by itself. The new classification order, Cnidaria, is the equivalent of Carnivora in mammals or Crocodilia in reptiles.
"Even though this animal looks very much like a sea anemone, it is not one," Rodríguez said. "Both groups of animals lack the same characters, but our research shows that while the anemones lost those characters over millions of years of evolution, R. daphneae never had them."
"Putting these animals in the same group would be like classifying worms and snakes together because neither have legs," Rodríguez added.
Details of the order discovery were published in the journal PLOS One this week.