50 new species found in the past 50 years: Part 1

The past five decades have seen the scientific debuts of thousands of ‘new’ animals and plants. Here we present the first installment of 50 of the most fascinating discoveries.

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50 new species of the past half-century spread.

The past five decades have seen the scientific debuts of thousands of ‘new’ animals and plants. Here we present the first installment of 50 of the most fascinating discoveries.

1 HUBBS' BEAKED WHALE Named 1963 All washed up

They may be among the largest of all animals, but beaked whales are inconspicuous. They surface stealthily, without the blast of vapour typical of other whales.

They do not breach dramatically, ride bow waves or gather in large schools, and most have escaped commercial whaling.

Four new species have come to light in the past half-century, all identified from remains cast up on beaches or caught in fishing gear.

This is despite the fact that the first known Hubbs’ beaked whale obligingly stranded itself right outside the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, in 1945. At the time, marine biologist Carl Hubbs mistakenly thought it was another species, Andrew’s beaked whale.

Much later, when working with unidentified skeletons found on other Pacific coasts, Joseph Curtis Moore realised his whales and Hubbs’ were the same.

The species is distinguished from its relatives by two protruding teeth on each side of the lower jaw, a pale beak and the male’s jaunty ‘cap’ of white skin. Perhaps the whales themselves also use these characteristics for recognition.

 

2 MEGAMOUTH SHARK Named 1983 Gentle giant of the deep

On 15 November 1976, US Navy research vessel AFB-14 was anchored off Oahu, Hawaii, by means of two huge canvas sea anchors, trailing at a depth of about 150m. When these were hauled in, the crew was astounded to find the body of a massive shark.

The monster was 4.35m long, weighed 750kg and was unlike anything seen before. Just one year after the release of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, the discovery became a headline-grabbing sensation around the world.

The giant’s head was very long, and its vast jaws (which, unusually, opened by hinging upwards rather than downwards) were lined with numerous rows of teeth – more than 400 in total. The teeth were small but, in a finishing touch that even Spielberg might have considered far-fetched, the maw of the fish was luminescent.

The fact that these characteristics indicated a peaceful, plankton-feeding existence did little to quell excitement, and the animal’s media nickname of ‘megamouth’ stuck.

About 50 individuals have since been recorded, a handful of them live sightings. In 1990, one of the sharks was tagged and tracked off California for two days; it kept to the depths by day and rose to the surface waters at night, probably following the vertical movements of its tiny prey.

 

3 SOPRANO (55kHz) PIPISTRELLE Named 1999 An acoustic discovery 

Until recently, bat biologists recognised just two pipistrelle species in Britain – the widespread ‘common pip’ and the seldom encountered Nathusius’ pipistrelle.

But in the mid-1990s, advances in technology that enabled researchers to not only hear echolocation calls but also to analyse them made it clear that they were listening to two different vocalisations – one at an average frequency of 45kHz, the other at 55kHz.

Studies revealed that all of the individuals in a pipistrelle colony used either the 45 or the 55kHz call. No colonies were mixed, indicating that the two populations do not interbreed and are reproductively isolated.

Zoologists called the 55kHz species the soprano pipistrelle due to its higher-pitched voice. Before long, they began noticing other differences between the ‘pips’ – for example, in habitat preference, colour and size.

But it is the sonic nature of their original revelation that is most striking, since it reminds us of the limitations of our own senses.

 

THE PLANT KINGDOM

New plant discoveries seldom make the front pages, but are startlingly frequent – about 2,000 new species are described every year.

4 King’s lomatia Named 1967

Discovered by Tasmanian tin miner ‘Deny’ King, this creeping shrub is thought to be an ancient hybrid, unable to produce seed due to a mismatch in the chromosome numbers of the parent species.

It has had a tenuous existence for over 40,000 years, relying solely on propagation by natural layering – sending out roots from the nodes of creeping stems.

5 Pygmy Rwandan water lily Named 1987

A handful of plants in Bonn Botanic Gardens became the last hope for the world’s smallest water lily in 2008, when its native hot spring in Rwanda dried up.

When these specimens failed to reproduce, the precious seeds were entrusted to horticulturalists at Kew Gardens, who managed a minor miracle by replicating the lost spring’s warm, saturated mud. Several dozen of the tiny plants now thrive at Kew.

6 Wollemi pine Named 1994

This pine is actually a kind of monkey puzzle tree and has outlived its closest relatives by two million years. It survived a genetic bottleneck that means all of today’s specimens are genetically identical.

The location of the Critically Endangered wild trees is kept secret, but gardeners worldwide have jumped at the chance to cultivate a living fossil.

7 Suicide palm Named 2008

Known locally as dimaka, this stately, Critically Endangered Madagascan tree has a kamikaze reproductive strategy in which it sprouts a 5m-tall flowering stem.

This epic one-off blooming event exhausts its reserves: the tree flowers itself to death. 

8 Isoglossa variegata Named 2009

When botanist Iain Darbyshire spotted a plant he didn’t recognise in the glasshouse at Kew, he was intrigued. A subsequent search
of the herbarium yielded some preserved specimens, 100 years old and bearing a note: “Name urgently desired.” It was a long wait, but this diminutive African acanthus finally has a name.

9 Night-flowering orchid Named 2011

Dutch botanist Ed de Vogel found a small orchid on the island of New Britain in 2008. Specimens he brought back grew well, but their buds appeared to abort. Then de Vogel took a plant home to observe and learned the truth – its flimsy blooms only open at about 10pm, and wither by morning.

 

10 ALDABRA WARBLER Named 1968 Going, going, gone

This ‘little brown job’ was already in crisis when it was first discovered on Aldabra Atoll in the Seychelles. An intensive search less than 10 years later found only six birds, and in 1983 a lone male became the species’ last known representative. The island endemic was listed as extinct in 1994.

 

11 COOLOOLA MONSTER Named 1980 Stranger than fiction

Some species discoveries boggle even expert minds. David Rentz was an authority on orthopterans (the group of insects that includes grasshoppers and crickets) when in 1977 he arrived in Canberra to join the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation.

A package awaited him, with a note: “Here’s something to introduce you to the Australian fauna.” Inside was what Rentz at first suspected was a clever hoax.

But the creature was for real. The cricket-like insect, all but blind and wingless, had been captured in a pitfall trap in damp sand on the coastal sands of Queensland’s Cooloola National Park. It became the first representative of a new insect family, to which three more species have since been added.

 

12 IRUKANDJI JELLYFISH Named 1967 Unveiling a phantom killer

This minuscule, all-but-invisible jellyfish was new to science in the 1960s, though its existence off northern Australia had long been known from a sickness afflicting unlucky swimmers in the summer months.

The symptoms, including a rash and goose bumps, leading to intense back and abdominal pain, blinding headaches, high blood pressure and fits of coughing and vomiting, were called Irukandji syndrome. But no victim saw the Irukandji, and no likely candidate had been caught in nets.

Marine biologist John Barnes devoted his life to tracking the creature down, and in 1961 captured a peanut-sized, transparent box jelly with four hairlike tentacles.

There was only one way to see if it was the culprit: he placed its tentacles on his skin – and felt the syndrome’s effects. His find was named Carukia barnesi. There must be easier ways to have a species named after you…

 

SPECIES SHORTS

13 Majorcan midwife toad Named 1979

In 1977, a fossil frog was described from the Pleistocene rocks of this Balearic island. Two years later the same species was found, very much alive, in limestone crevices beside mountain streams.

14 Carnivorous sponge Named 1995

Most sponges feed on particles carried into their bodies by ocean currents. But this small, harp-shaped species hunts using filaments covered in hooked spicules to snare tiny crustaceans.

15 Attenborough’s long-beaked echidna Named 1998

Described belatedly from a museum specimen, this egg-laying mammal named for the TV presenter has not been seen alive by scientists since 1961.

16 Giant peccary Named 2007

The recent description of a fourth species of peccary – a pig-like mammal from South America – is based on video and mitochondrial DNA evidence. As with many ‘discoveries’, local people had long known about it.

17 Brothers Island tuatara Named 1987

Tuataras are survivors of a lineage as old as the dinosaurs, in recent history restricted to islands off New Zealand. In 1987, DNA studies proved that those on this 4ha outcrop were a new species.

 

PRIMATES ON PARADE

The ranks of our primate relatives have proved to be rich hunting grounds for taxonomists, with several dozen new species named in recent decades.

18 Golden-crowned sifaka Named 1988

Perhaps the most handsome of the 13 or so lemurs added to the list of Madagascar’s endemic primates in the past half-century, this sifaka was first observed by Ian Tattersall in 1974, though not described until 1988.

The species is Endangered, thanks not least to political unrest.

19 Black-faced lion tamarin Named 1990

Some believe this petite but extravagant-looking primate to be a subspecies of the black lion tamarin, the species that Sir David Attenborough says is his favourite monkey.

But the latest reviews favour its separation. The distinction matters, because just 400 of these threatened primates survive in the Atlantic lowland rainforest of Brazil.

20 Rondo dwarf bushbaby Named 1996

Major taxonomic revisions can create and eliminate new species at a stroke. When the endearing but elusive bushbabies, or galagos, were revised during the 1980s and 1990s, the African family emerged six species up on earlier estimates.

This Critically Endangered group member is one such newcomer.

21 Sumatran orangutan Named 1996

The reclassification of orangutans on Sumatra as separate from those on Borneo has emphasised the urgency of conservation on the island, and captive breeding is now regulated to avoid genetic mix-ups.

22 Myanmar snub-nosed monkey Named 2010

So far, the only members of this monkey seen by scientists were caught by hunters – ironic, since hunting is their main threat.

23 Lesula Named 2012

A rare species of guenon with a shock of golden fur, the lesula was first observed in 2007. Biologists visiting the River Lomami region of the Democratic Republic of Congo found several being kept as pets.

 

24 VU QUANG OX (SAOLA) Named 1993 Spindle-horned spirit of the forest

There aren’t many places on Earth where a terrestrial animal the size of a small horse could live unknown to science. But the upland forests of Vu Quang, on the border between Vietnam and Laos, have yielded a number of remarkable finds.

In 1992, members of a WWF expedition visiting the homes of local hunters were shown three sets of spindle-like horns, unlike those of any animal they knew living in Asia.

Intensive searching yielded more horns and some skins, from which a new species was described in 1993.

The animal was known to local people, but it was not until 1994 that they captured a live specimen, a juvenile female, to show scientists. She died four months later, and all subsequent attempts to keep the species in captivity, most recently in 2010, also failed.

The Vu Quang ox came to be regarded as the biggest zoological find of the late 20th century.

 

25 AMSTERDAM ALBATROSS Named 1983 The genes don’t lie

The description of a new species of albatross from far-flung Amsterdam Island in the southern Indian Ocean was controversial in 1983 – some experts remained convinced that the huge seabirds were a subspecies of wandering albatross.

But DNA evidence has since showed clear evidence of separation, clinching the deal.

 

Find out which species made the second part of our list of new species discovered in the past half-century. 

Return to the 50 years of BBC Wildlife home page. 

 

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