Science never ceases to surprise me.

I’d have sworn my project was like any other of its kind: collect samples in the field, run DNA tests, analyze and discuss the data, write the paper. Simple as that. Ironically, evolutionary studies don’t usually qualify as groundbreaking, just substantiating at best. We’re all trying to support the same idea: that life is constantly changing.

I studied reef fish biogeography and evolution for half my years at college, so by the time I got into grad school, I knew their patterns pretty well. I didn’t expect anything different when I took on a project about yet another reef fish species. Evaluate its genetic connectivity along the coast, that’s all there was to it. My project was a simple matter of collecting specimens from different locations and comparing their DNA to get a picture of how it was evolving in a given biogeographic province.

Nothing out of the ordinary came up during the sampling and amplification periods. The surprise came when I analyzed the data.

I remember that moment distinctly. Exhausted from weeks of amplifying DNA, reading papers, and writing and rewriting the first parts of my thesis, I was finally sitting down at my computer to compare the sequences. I took a sip of coffee just as the program finally finished running the data… and almost spit it out at the sight of the phylogenetic tree that appeared on the screen. Where I had expected to see a single branch containing all my sequences, there were two separate clades dividing the samples collected from the northern and southern coastal regions. Two geographically close populations that should have been almost identical somehow had a 10% genetic divergence between them. Was that even possible?

An excitement like I hadn’t felt in years overcame me, but I still had to be sure. I ran the data again using three different parameters. All three trees produced the same result: North here, South there. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Yet there it was on my screen, plain as the nose on my face. The results were clear beyond a shadow of a doubt: I was dealing with…

“A new species?!”

I jumped up from my chair and ran next door to my professor’s office. Within the minute, I was showing him the trees on my computer and watching his expression change from puzzled to amazed. I knew exactly why we should be so excited by this result; it meant there were other evolutionary processes at play that we hadn’t expected. In anticipation of the stimulating discussions ahead, I knew the grin on my face wouldn’t disappear for at least a week. My project had just gotten way more interesting.

Science never ceases to surprise me. And I hope it never will.

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