An animal believed to have been extinct for four million years has been found near Picton.

Called protulophila, the tiny marine animal forms a network of minuscule holes in the tubes of marine worms.

It was thought to have become extinct around 4 million years ago, after a long geological history extending back 170 million years into the Middle Jurassic period in Europe.

Its discovery occurred after fossil remains were found by a group of scientists including Niwa marine biologist Dr Dennis Gordon.


They had been working in Wanganui when they found fossilised protulophila in a tubeworm contained in rocks that were less than a million years old.

The discovery alerted them to the possibility that the animal - previously unknown outside Europe and the Middle East - might still be alive in New Zealand.

Scientists then looked at tube-worms preserved in alcohol at Niwa's invertebrate collection and discovered preserved protulophila. The tubeworms had been collected in 2008 in water near Picton.

Dr Gordon told the Herald the next step would be to collect fresh samples from Queen Charlotte Sound for gene sequencing - something he hoped the Department of Conservation would be keen to help with.

'DoC is interested in threatened species, and this has got to be an excellent example of a species threatened in space and time."

He said protulophila could be classified as a "living fossil" - animals and plants with lengthy geological histories that are now rare or uncommon.

Nicholas Jones