A new species. And it's named after Indiana State professor Amos Winter

Monday, April 4, 2022 - 23:05

Some people aspire to have arenas or events named after them.

Indiana State University professor Amos Winter now has an organism named after him — Syracosphaera winteri, a new algae species. It's a single-celled creature called a coccolithophore, living on the ocean surface.

"It's quite an honor," said Winter, a professor in ISU’s department of earth and environmental systems.

 He first observed its existence in 1976 when he was an oceanography graduate student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He found one specimen full of the thimble-shaped coccoliths during studies on the Gulf of Aqaba at the northern tip of the Red Sea.

But one specimen wasn't quite enough for naming privileges.

More than four decades later, additional complete specimens were found and described for the first time by Winter's colleague, Miguel J. Frada and his team while working at the same marine station as Winter did.

They named it after Winter: Syracosphaera winteri.

"Not everyone has the chance, the capability, the luck ... to have something named after them," Winter said in an interview from his office at ISU's Science Building. "It is done in our business ... when you describe a new species."

Species can be named after other things as well, such as a city, a country or geographic location. Also, a species name can be changed, so it may not be a forever thing, he said.

To add to his newfound celebrity, the World Register of Marine Species, or WoRMS, has chosen the species, Winter’s Basket Coccolithophore or Syracosphaera winteri, among the top-10 marine species of 2021.

The World Register describes the new species as extremely rare and extraordinary and writes:

"These beautiful structures are built by microscopic plant-like organisms called coccolithophores. Coccolithophores are single-celled creatures that live in huge numbers in the surface waters of the ocean all around the world. They photosynthesize, producing a large proportion of the world’s oxygen, and continually build detailed, geometric structures called coccoliths out of calcium carbonate."

Winter is passionate about the study of coccolithophores and eagerly shares images of various species on a computer screen.


"Look at that. It's gorgeous," he says, pointing to one and its intricate geometric formation. "What's fascinated me all along is that they produce these intricate skeletons."

A highly educated scientist, he also has a sense of humor. "Have you heard of coccolithophore before? Now you know. Pass the word around," he says.

Coccolithophores "are extremely important organisms," he said.

They are important in the recycling of carbon dioxide. "If we didn't have them, there would be more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere," he said. They also provide the world with oxygen.

To identify them, coccolithophores need to be magnified around 1,000 times and can be viewed at the Scanning Electron Microscope laboratory housed in the earth and environmental systems department at ISU.”

Winter, who has been at ISU since August 2015, teaches oceanography, astronomy and climate change.

He's lived many places around the globe, as his father worked for El Al Israel and other airlines. Winter's parents were Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany who met in Palestine; they later moved to Switzerland, where he was born.

He's taught at the University of Cape Town in South Africa and University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez.

Winter's research means he's all too aware of the impact of climate change. "If we don't do something now, we are doomed," he said. "I can't understand why people don't take immediate action. They are going to wait, wait, wait until it's too late."

He lives within a mile of the university and always rides his bike to campus.

"We know exactly what we need to do," he said. "But because we want comforts, we are killing the earth." People need to change their habits and live in ways more friendly to the environment, he says.

Jennifer Latimer, chairwoman of the department of earth and environmental systems, said of Winter's recognition, "It is always an honor to have an organism named after you. I think it’s great for Dr. Winter to be recognized in this way."

She added that "it is a tribute to his contributions to the field of micropaleontology (the study of microscopic fossils) and paleoceanography (the study of ancient oceans).

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