While other high school students are texting their friends, Elizabeth Garfinkle is hard at work in the research labs at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History (SBMNH). Elizabeth, a junior at Garden Street Academy (San Roque High School) in Santa Barbara, California, has just achieved an exceptionally rare feat, describing a new species of animal .
In conjunction with Paul Valentich-Scott, a scientist at SBMNH, Elizabeth has named a new clam in the international journal Zootaxa (http://www.mapress.com/zootaxa/). It is believed that this is one of the very few times that a high school student has described a new species.
The new animal is a one inch bittersweet clam from Baja California, Mexico. As one of the authors of the new species, Ms. Garfinkle was given the right to choose a name for it. “I named this shell after a two year old that I babysit and have a close relationship with,” said Elizabeth. As of February 21, 2011, it is officially called Tucetona isabellae, a name it will carry for centuries into the future.
In recounting the process of describing the new life form Ms. Garfinkle stated, “We had to test if the species was new by comparing it to similar described shells. We took many measurements of the specimens and compared it to known species. We also looked at articles written by other scientists.”
Many surprises unfolded during the research. Garfinkle explained, “As we were writing the paper, another scientist let us know that he had also discovered the same new species many years ago. He let us describe it as new, since he hadn’t worked on it for a long time.”
This scientist, Charles Powell from the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, California, further informed Garfinkle that the species was also found in fossil beds in the Imperial Valley of California. The fossils are dated to the Miocene Epoch, about 6 million years ago. So while Garfinkle’s new species has just been described, it has been living in the region for millions of years.
What did Garfinkle like best about the project? “One of the highlights of the experience was corresponding with scientists from the British Museum, and the Smithsonian during my school day,” Elizabeth exclaimed.
Garfinkle summarized her research project. “It was a once in a lifetime experience that happened by being in the right place at the right time. I didn’t think I would have this opportunity. That part is amazing.”