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A new loricifera species, Nanaloricus mathildeae. Video: Reinhardt M. Kristensen & Nadja Møbjerg/University of Copenhagen

The space between sand and sediment at the bottom of the sea is home to tiny animals called loriciferans. This week researchers describe three new species of the animals found off the coast of France.

The big picture: These minute animals are part of a lesser known group of fauna in the oceans whose role in the ecosystem is largely understudied.

Details: The animals in the phylum loricifera are typically less than half a millimeter long. Smaller than megafauna like crustaceans and clams but larger than microscopic zooplankton, they're part of what's known as meiofauna.

  • An exoskeleton of plates and folds called the lorica protects the animal's abdomen (and gives loriciferans their name).
  • Loriciferans can move backward and jump forward, with their snout extruding, a strange movement that may be for foraging, says Ricardo C. Neves of the University of Copenhagen and an author of the new study.

"They are amazing and different from anything else," he says.

  • The research published this week in the journal PLOS One brings the tally of described loricifera species to 43. The species, one of which has distinct features and is part of a new genus, were determined using specimens the researchers began collecting in 1985.
  • A decade ago, researchers found three loricifera species living in sediment deep in the Mediterranean Sea — without oxygen. Those species appear to lack mitochondria, which use oxygen to generate chemical energy for cells to function, and to have found another way to survive extreme conditions.

What's next: Neves says they want to sample more specimens and confirm the species don't have mitochondria — and what kind of organelles they do have, while better understanding their evolutionary relationship to other small animals, including tardigrades and arthropods, and their role in the ocean ecosystem.

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This is the moment the conservative legal movement has been building toward for decades: The solidly conservative Supreme Court is about to hear two major abortion cases within a month of each other.

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