Grad Student Discovers New Mud Dragon Species

by Libby Thornton

A Troy University graduate student discovered a new species of mud dragon while analyzing samples for her marine biology master’s thesis, and she named the discovery after her late brother.

When Madison Kennedy was young and living in the landlocked city of Kitchener, Ontario, Canada, she knew she wanted to study the ocean. She had an unexplainable fascination with the sea and its larger, more popular inhabitants, specifically dolphins.

Originally, she came to Troy on a track scholarship, which she describes as being “her ticket to get into the Southern states, and subtropical regions” to study the ocean.

During her undergraduate years, Kennedy took classes under biology professor Dr. Stephen Landers, whose classes engaged her in conversations surrounding invertebrates and microscopic ocean dwellers. She also completed her summer courses at the Dauphin Island Sea Laboratory, which “completely sold” her on the study of wetlands. 

“There is such a tight knit network here,” Kennedy said. 

And because she knew Landers and what he studied, she applied for the graduate program to dive deeper into her invertebrate studies, specifically within the Gulf of Mexico.

She knew her study would be based in Mobile Bay and a place that has her heart –  Dauphin Island. But she never imagined she would be discovering an entirely new species. 

In 2018, Landers collected samples of small marine invertebrates known as Kinorhynch, or “mud dragons,” that became part of a “species most wanted list.” But he didn’t have enough specimens to introduce them as a new species at the time.              

Later, while Kennedy was observing samples from two sites within the Gulf, she found one, and then another, and then another, with what became dubbed as a “tuck butt.” Exactly what Landers had observed four years earlier. 

“Every other Kinorhynch I was looking at was nothing new,” Kennedy said. “The first time I saw [the tuck butt] I called Dr. Landers down and said, ‘Hey, there’s something weird in this group,’ but I had found what they needed.”

Kennedy ended up having four specimens within that data sample that all shared a lack of spine and ability to retract segments 10 and 11 of their bodies into segment nine – or “tuck their butts.” 

Kennedy’s observed specimen combined with Lander’s specimen gave them enough data to publish the discovery in a reputable journal, take photographs and gather accurate measurements.

“[Kennedy’s] collections made it possible and gave her the experience of formally writing up the animal in a scientific journal,” Landers noted. 

While there is a lot of work that goes into documenting a new species, nothing can truly be done if it does not have a name. 

Kennedy immediately wanted to ask Landers if the species could be named after her late brother, who passed away from a rare form of bone cancer two weeks after Kennedy started graduate school. However, she wasn’t sure how the process worked. 

“One day I asked him while we were measuring some of the species, and he informed me that him and Dr. Sørensen, the curator out of Copenhagen, had already decided to name it after Zach,” Kennedy said. The official name of the mud dragon is Echinoderes zacharyi.

For Kennedy, Zachary kept everything light, and even during his battle with cancer, taught her to not take life so seriously.

“Even if it’s a small, microscopic animal named after him, at least he has that impact,” Kennedy said. “You try to keep everything scientific, but it’s awesome to be able to talk about him still, to keep him alive.”

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