DNA barcoding has enabled a team of Smithsonian scientists to discover the missing link between fish larvae collected in the Florida Straits and the adults of a new species of sea bass found off the coast of Curacao. 

For this study, the team focused on mysterious traces of larvae that appeared in a photograph from an unrelated research paper. The team identified that the larvae belonged to the Serranidae family of sea bass. Scientists observed the presence of seven elongated dorsal-fin spines.

Probing further, the team found another puzzling feature of the larvae: its DNA sequence did not match that of any known fish species. The discovery, along with the species' unique details of morphology, led the scientists to deduce that the larvae belonged to a new species.

The team named the new species of sea bass Liopropoma olneyi after John E. Olney, a deceased colleague who studied and taught courses on marine fish larvae.

"This was one of those cases where all the stars were properly aligned," said zoologist Carole Baldwin of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in a press release.  "We discovered a new species of sea bass on Curacao deep reefs that just happens to be the missing adult stage of larval fish from Florida, which we only knew existed because it was included as 'decoration' in a scientific publication. What a great little fish story!"

Deep reefs, which can have a depth range of 150 to more than 1,000 feet, have ecosystems that remain underexplored worldwide and are not easily accessible. Now, researchers are able to explore deep reefs in the southern Caribbean by using the Curasub submersible, a privately owned and manned vehicle that can reach as deep as 1,000 feet.

The discovery of L. olneyi at Curacao is part of the Smithsonian's Deep Reef Observation Project. Further details of the study were published in the May 13 issue of PLOS ONE.