50 new species found in the past 50 years: Part 2

The past five decades have seen the scientific debuts of thousands of ‘new’ animals and plants. Here we present the second installment of 25 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 second installment of 50 of the most fascinating discoveries.

26 INDONESIAN COELACANTH Named 1998 Another fish-market find 

In one the great zoological discoveries of the past century, a coelacanth, Latimeria chalumnae, was spotted on a South African fish-market stall in 1938.

It was the stuff of biologists’ fantasy – both a living fossil and a ‘missing link’ between fish and quadrupedal land animals, with four limb-like fins.

The known distribution of coelacanths was in the south-west Indian Ocean, but in 1998 honeymooning scientists Arnaz and Mark Erdmann came across one over 9,500km away at a market in Manado, Sulawesi.

Physical and genetic analysis of further specimens indicated this was a sister species: L. menadoensis.

 

27 YETI CRAB Named 2006 Life where the sun doesn't shine

With its extraordinary ‘hairy’ appendages, this invertebrate is one of a host of weird and wonderful organisms described since the discovery of deep-sea vent communities in the 1970s.

Vent animals depend on an ecosystem previously unimagined on Earth, fuelled by energy not from the sun, but from the oxidation of hydrogen sulphide.

 

28 Seychelles giant tortoise Named 1877 and 1997

Also known as the hololissa, this island giant was named in 1877, then believed extinct in the 19th century. But in 1997 a genetic study of captive collections unmasked at least a dozen living specimens, misidentified as Aldabra giant tortoises. One is 180 years old.

 

29 Horse chestnut leaf miner Named 1986

If the leaves of your local horse chestnut trees turn brown prematurely in summer, chances are it is the work of caterpillars of this nondescript moth – a Greek native.

 

30 Platypus frog Named 1973

Zoologists studying a newly discovered Australian frog were amazed to find that the female swallowed fertilised eggs – and vomited up the froglets six weeks later. Sadly, the unusual behaviour died out with the species in the mid-1980s.

 

31 Dracula ant Named 1994

At first, the most interesting thing about this Madagascan ant seemed to be the shape of its abdomen, recalling that of primitive ancestors. Then, in 2001, studies of a live colony revealed a gruesome secret: the adult ants suck the body fluids of their larvae.

 

32 Bulo burti boubou shrike Named 1991
This controversial species was described from the DNA of a single bird, which was released on account of its presumed rarity (hence its scientific name Laniarius liberatus). But a 2008 review of the data led to reclassification as a subspecies of the Somali boubou.

 

33 FOREST ELEPHANT Named 2001 Is you is or is you ain’t?

A long-running argument over the status of the small elephants found in Central Africa’s forests illustrates fundamental difficulties in defining exactly what constitutes a species.

For many years, the forest elephant was considered a subspecies of the plains elephant, based on habitat preference and appearance (including small size, tusk shape and skull characteristics).

In 2001, genetic evidence strengthened the case for two different species, but doubts remain due to evidence of cross-breeding between them.

Promoting forest elephants to full species status appears to fly in the face of the biological species concept (BSC), which requires that different species cannot interbreed successfully.

But the BSC is simplistic – it doesn’t account for geographic isolation, often a trigger for speciation.

Speciation is not a neat process; the separation of two lineages can be messy and gradual. Increasingly, it is considered pragmatic for populations to be classed as separate species if they simply don’t get the chance to interbreed.

 

34 GOLDEN ARROW POISON FROG Named 1978 Deadly to the touch

Attractive yet lethally toxic, this frog was new to science in 1973, but had long been known to the Emberá people of Colombia, who still use the batrachotoxin secreted by its skin to tip poison darts used for hunting.

The milligram of poison stored by a single frog could kill up to 1,200 mice or 20 humans. Bizarrely, the species is a good-luck charm in Panama.

 

35 OKARITO KIWI Named 2003 Three for one…

Painstaking study of the ecology and physical and genetic characteristics of North Island brown kiwis concluded that they comprised three species.

The Okarito kiwi – the rarest of the trio – is the focus of an intensive conservation project to boost its population, which currently stands at a mere 300 birds.

 

36 BUMBLEBEE BAT Named 1973 Thailand’s miniature marvel

Barely 3cm from snout to tail and weighing just 2g, this bat is probably the world’s smallest mammal.

It is the sole representative of its family, and was first recorded by the biologist Kitti Thonglongya. He died before describing his discovery, but features in its scientific name Craseonycteris thonglongyai. 

 

37 COLLODICTYON Named 2012 Granddaddy of us all?

A sludge-dwelling organism dredged from a Norwegian lake appears to be neither a plant nor an animal.

It’s no fungus, protozoan or bacterium, either. It’s a eukaryote, the division of life to which just about everything except bacteria belongs, so it could be our most distant known relative on the tree of life.

 

LIVING FOSSILS AND FORBIDDEN KANGAROOS

When Western explorers landed in Australasia, they encountered a plethora of unfamiliar beasts. Marsupials attracted particular attention because of the way in which they have diversified to fill diverse ecological niches.

Some of the many new marsupials named in the past 50 years were found through molecular technology and the exploration of remote or isolated ecosystems. But serendipity also plays a part.

For example, the genus Burramys was known only from Pleistocene fossils until 1966, when a tiny possum scurried into a ski hut. The mountain pygmy possum (38) was thus catapulted to zoological stardom.

Many marsupials escaped recognition for decades because they were inconspicuous: the long-footed potoroo (1980) (39), for instance. But large animals also went undocumented for generations.

Reports of an unusual rock wallaby found on islands around Proserpine in Queensland were ignored by science until 1976, when examination of a captive individual made it clear that here was another new species. The Proserpine rock wallaby (40) was finally described in 1982.

The island of New Guinea yields new marsupials almost routinely. Take the bronze quoll (41), described in 1987. It is a dasyure – the marsupial equivalent of small carnivores like martens or civets.

The forbidden tree kangaroo (1995) (42) and Telefomin cuscus (1987) (43) are among more than 30 new species described by the celebrated Australian biologist Tim Flannery, though the latter is now feared extinct.

 

44 FIJIAN CRESTED IGUANA Named 1979 A star among lizards

First identified on the tiny volcanic islet of Yadua Taba, the handsome crested iguana is distinguished by its spiny crest and substantial dewlap – both features lacking in the more widespread banded iguana.

The discovery resulted in unusually swift conservation action. Before long, the island became Fiji’s first wildlife reserve, and goats that threatened the entire ecosystem were removed.

A few years later, a second colony came to light after a specimen appeared briefly with Brooke Shields in the movie Blue Lagoon. The animal was recruited during filming on the Yasawa Islands 80km from Yadua Taba. This cameo led to further protection.

 

45 PO'O-ULI Named 1973 Island strife

No biology lesson on the evolutionary phenomenon of adaptive radiation is complete without a reference to two diverse bird groups endemic to remote archipelagos: the Hawaiian honeycreepers and Galápagos finches.

The former evolved from a finch-like ancestor into more than 30 species, most sporting a distinctive bill to suit a specialised lifestyle.

But the arrival of humans on the Hawaiian islands was a disaster for the honeycreepers. Several species were already extinct by 1973, when students surveying the slopes of the volcanic peak of Maui’s Haleakala– came across a new one – the black-faced honeycreeper, or po’o-uli.

Sadly, just three birds were left in 1997; the species is now presumed extinct.

 

46 Grandidier’s Vontsira Named 1986

Dozens of new mammals have come to light in Madagascar in recent decades: this striped beauty is a prime example. It’s one of the diverse Madagascan carnivores known as Eupleuridae, which fill the niches of other groups elsewhere in the world.

 

47 Alcathoe’s bat Named 2001

When this bat was described, its range was thought to comprise just Greece and Hungary. Studies have since increased its known European distribution, and in 2010 it was found in significant numbers in Sussex and Yorkshire.

 

48 Mimic octopus Named 2005

Flexible arms and rapid colour changes enable this Indonesian octopus to adopt a stunning range of convincing alter egos, including ‘lionfish’, ‘flounder’, ‘eel’, ‘crab’, ‘shrimp’ and ‘sea snake’. The tactic may deter predators – and helped to hide it from biologists for so long.

 

49 London underground mosquito Named 1999

‘Mozzies’ in the Tube have adapted to feed from humans and rats instead of birds, and are reluctant to breed with their above-ground cousins, so could end up a separate species.

 

50 Kting voar Named 1994

One of the most hotly debated discoveries of recent years centred on several sets of spiral horns, which turned out to be fakes. The IUCN listed this mythical Asian bovid for some years, in case it did actually exist. Most experts now believe that it doesn’t.

 

Find out which species made the 1–25 list of new species discovered in the past half-century.

Return to the 50 years of BBC Wildlife home page. 

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