From the team at BBC Wildlife Magazine

New species discovered this year

From a millipede named after Taylor Swift and a tree named after Leonardo DiCaprio to a bamboo-dwelling tarantula and a leafhopper with a metallic sheen, discover some of the new species around the world that have been described by scientists in 2022.

A very colourful fairy wrasse fish, mostly pink with some purple, blue and orange hues.
Published: May 22, 2022 at 7:00 am
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Taxonomists (scientists that classify species) describe thousands and thousands of new extant (living) species every year, and 2022 has already seen some amazing new discoveries.

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Sometimes these species are completely new ones that have never been studied by scientists before, and sometimes it's a case of a species and its subspecies being examined more closely and it is agreed upon that they ought to be separate species .

And paleontologists (scientists studying extinct species from different geological eras) are also describing new species that they've studied from bones, fossils, amber and even fossilised dung.

Sometimes species are named after their characteristics or the region in which they are found. However, sometimes scientists like to have a bit more fun and species have been named after celebrities, including over 40 species named after Sir David Attenborough.

Discover 24 new species discovered in 2021, including a spider genus named after activist Greta Thunberg, a frog with an “almost painful to listen to” call and a snake spotted as a new species via Instagram.


What is a species?

The concept of a species is arguably the most fundamental in biology. It is surprising, then, that it has caused scientists so much head-scratching. Charles Darwin wanted to do away with the concept altogether, considering it to be defining the indefinable.

The most used definition centres on interbreeding, stating that a species is a group within which two individuals can breed to produce fertile offspring.

In general, this definition holds water, but it can lead to surprising groupings. For example, due to climate change, polar bears and grizzly bears have been coming into contact and producing fertile young. Should we consider these bears one species?

Grizzlies have produced fertile young with polar bears, but are they the same species? © Laura Hedien/Getty
Grizzlies have produced fertile young with polar bears, but are they the same species? © Laura Hedien/Getty

The focus on sex also leaves out organisms that reproduce asexually. Other definitions consider ancestry, though where the lines should be drawn is unclear – are we the same species as our water-dwelling ancestors? Further definitions focus on ecology, geography and physiology.

This Q&A originally appeared in BBC Wildlife Magazine, and was answered by Leoma Williams.


How many species go extinct each day?

This is impossible to answer precisely. New species appear all the time and can go extinct before they’ve even been described, and estimates as to the rates of extinction very enormously. One approach to working it out would be to first take the yearly ‘natural extinction rate’ – the rate at which species would go extinct if we humans weren’t around. This is often stated as one per million (or 0.00001%) per year – but again, opinion on this varies.

Experts now believe that current rates of extinction have soared to between 1,000 and 10,000 times this natural rate. So, take the natural rate as one per million and that brings current rates to between 0.01 and 0.1% per year. There are said to be 1.6 million described species on our planet, but some experts believe there could be as many as 100 million. So, work out the worse- case scenario maths and the daily rate of extinction comes in at 273 species per day.

We are said to be in the midst of a sixth extinction. Unlike previous mass extinction events, which were the result of climatic shifts, geological activity and a very large asteroid, responsibility for the current losses is down to us.

This Q&A originally appeared in BBC Wildlife Magazine, and was answered by Sarah McPherson.


Newly described species of 2022

Spiny lizard (Sceloporus huichol), Mexico

A grey-brown lizard on a rock.
Sceloporus huichol is a new species of spiny lizard. © Eric Smith

Part of the Sceloporus torquatus species complex (a group of species within a genus that are close, but distinct from each other), S. huichol is a newly described species of spiny lizard. Other common names for lizards in this genus include fence lizards and scaly lizards. Scientists examined specimens from eight museum and university collections, and found differences in morphology, colour patterns and genetics from similar species, as well as habitat preferences.

S. huichol lives the semi-xeric pine and oak forests in the mountains of Nayarit and Jalisco, a region in in west-central Mexico which has been relatively unexplored by scientists. Another reptile (a snake) was described from this region in 2007 and it’s thought that more undescribed species may be found there.

The specific epithet ‘huichol’ honours the Huichol tribe of Mexico who live where the species is found, who also refer to themselves as Wixáritari (“the people”) in their native language.

Read the paper in Zootaxa.

Chiriquí fire salamander (Bolitoglossa cathyledecae), Panama

An orange-red salamander on a yellow background.
It's thought that the Chiriquí fire salamander (Bolitoglossa cathyledecae) should be classified as critically endangered. © Marcos Ponce

This brightly coloured amphibian is a newly described salamander, discovered during an expedition of Panamanian scientists. The species can be distinguished from its close relatives by its colours, webbing on its hands and feet and its number of upper teeth, and its status as a separate species was confirmed by genetic analysis. The scientists suggest that it is classified as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List, due to its restricted distribution and the likelihood of anthropogenic pressure in the area.

The team had been investigating the Panamanian side of Cordillera de Talamanca, a mountain range in southeast of Costa Rica and the west of Panama, which is includes La Amistad International Park. It is considered one of the least-explored regions of Central America, and has one of the highest diversity of salamander species in the Neotropics. This particular species was found in the Boquete district in the Chiriquí province.

The scientists honoured the conservationist Cathy Ledec with the specific epithet ‘cathyledecae’, whilst the common English name indicates the species’ location.

Read the paper in Zootaxa.

Millipede (Nannaria swiftae), USA

A brown and orange millipede.
Nannaria swiftae was named after the singer-songwriter Taylor Swift. © Derek A. Hennen

One of 17 newly described millipede species, Nannaria swiftae appears in a recent paper by three myriapodologists (scientists studying myriapods) examining the taxonomy of twisted-claw millipedes in the Nannaria wilsoni group. Alongside examining genetics, one of the millipedes’ key differences looked at by the researchers was the morphology of the male’s modified legs, which are used for sex.

The 17 new species brings the number of Nannaria species up to 78 in total – the genus had just 23 before these scientists starting studying them in 2015 (a March 2021 paper added 2 new species bringing it up to 25, an April 2021 paper added 35 new species and raised a subspecies to full species status bringing it up to 61).

All 17 news species are found in the valleys of the Appalachian Mountains, a range that extends from Central Alabama in the USA to the island of Newfoundland in Canada.

The ‘swiftae’ in the scientific name honours the famous US singer and songwriter Taylor Swift, because Dr Derek Hennen, the lead author of the study, is a Swiftie (a fan). He also named a species after his wife, N. marianae, as “a small thank you for all her patience when we’re taking a nature hike and I stop to look for millipedes.”

Read the full paper in ZooKeys.

Rose-veiled fairy wrasse (Cirrhilabrus finifenmaa), Maldives

A very colourful fairy wrasse fish, mostly pink with some purple, blue and orange hues.
The rose-veiled fairy wrasse (Cirrhilabrus finifenmaa) is one of the first species to be named in the local Dhivehi language. © Yi-Kai Tea

Originally thought to be an adult of a different fairy wrasse species, Cirrhilabrus rubrisquamis, further analysis of both adults and juveniles of this beautiful fish has revealed that it is in fact a separate species. It has been named the rose-veiled fairy wrasse (Cirrhilabrus finifenmaa).

The new species is found off the coast of the Maldives, and is one of the first-ever to be formally described by a Maldivian researcher. Ahmed Najeeb from the Maldives Marine Research Institute collaborated from scientists from the California Academy of Sciences, the University of Sydney, and the Field Museum, and the research was part of the Academy’s Hope for Reefs initiative.

The species name ‘finifenmaa’ is derived from the local Dhivehi language and means ‘rose’. This is a nod to both the Maldives’ national flower and the stunning pink hues of the wrasse. It is one of the first species to be named in Dhivehi.

Read the full paper in ZooKeys.

Tapir frog (Synapturanus danta), in the Putumayo Basin, Peru

A chocolate-brown frog with a relatively long nose, perched on a dry leaf.
The tapir frog (Synapturanus danta) has also been dubbed as the 'chocolate frog' by Harry Potter fans on social media. © Germán Chávez

Like other fossorial (burrowing) species, the newly described Synapturanus danta was not easy to find. The frog was discovered in the Putumayo Basin of Peru, by researchers undertaking a ‘rapid inventory’ biological record for Chicago’s Field Museum.

Researchers spent only a few days at each site for rapid inventories and came across a juvenile frog during their first night exploring an area of Amazonian peatland, a rare and understudied habitat.

Further detection work was required to identify calls and track down two adult males. Analysis revealed that the three frogs were from an undescribed species.

The discovery of this new frog quickly garnered a lot of attention when it was announced on social media, with many people comparing it to the chocolate frogs from the Harry Potter books and films. But its common name, tapir frog, comes from the species’ tapir-like nose. The people of Comunidad Nativa Tres Esquinas, familiar with the frog, refer to it as the rana danta, ‘danta’ being the local word for tapir.

Read the full paper in Evolutionary Systematics.

Tree (Uvariopsis dicaprio), in the Ebo Forest, Cameroon

Yellow-green flowers hang from the trunk of a tree within a rainforest.
Uvariopsis dicaprio was discovered in Ebo Forest in Cameroon. © Lorna MacKinnon

A tropical tree in the ylang-ylang forest, this species was the first addition to the 2022 new species list by the scientists at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (RGB Kew), who were working with the National Herbarium of Cameroon. It is four metres tall, with bunches of large and glossy yellow-green flowers on its trunk, and was collected by RGB Kew scientist Lorna MacKinnon.

U. dicaprio was found in the Ebo Forest, which is one of the largest intact rainforests in Cameroon and makes up half of the Yabassi Kew Biodiversity Area. It has been relatively unknown to botanical science, and scientists have been working to document its array of species. The forest is home to the world’s only known chimps to both crack nuts and fish for termites, and is the ancestral home of several local communities.

The species was named in honour of the actor and environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio, who used social media in February 2020 to call for a logging concession in Ebo Forest to be revoked.

“We very much appreciated the support Leo gave us in campaigning to protect Ebo last year,” says Dr Martin Cheek, senior researcher in RBG Kew’s Africa team. “So it seemed fitting to honour him in this way, naming a species unique only to this forest, after him. Had the logging concession gone ahead, we would have likely lost this species to timber extraction and slash and burn agriculture that usually follows logging concessions.”

U. dicaprio is already assessed in the paper as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List. Its forest habitat is unprotected and remains under threat from logging, conversion to plantation and mining.

In 2021, RBG Kew and their partners named approximately 205 plants and fungi from Africa, Asia, the Americas and even in the UK.

Read the full paper in PeerJ.

Leafhopper (Phlogis kibalensis), in Kibale National Park, Uganda

A large white and brown leafhopper.
Phlogis kibalensis is part of a relatively unknown genus. © Magnolia Press, reproduced with permission from the copyright holder

The rainforest of the Kibale National Park is well known for its diversity of primates, but during student field trips, entomologist Dr Alvin Helden of Anglia Ruskin University had been focused on documenting the insects of the park to create field guides.

One particular insect caught his eye with its metallic sheen – a unknown leafhopper, belonging to the rare Phlogis genus. So rare in fact that it’s been more than 50 years since an individual from that genus has been recorded, and that was in the Central African Republic. As a leafhopper, this new insect is part of the ‘true bugs’ order, known as Hemiptera, and almost nothing is known about its ecology.

Kibale National Park is located in western Uganda, close to the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is considered one of the best locations for chimpanzee tracking, and is home to 13 primate species. The park borders the Queen Elizabeth National Park to the south, and together they create a 180km-long wildlife corridor.

The specific part of the species' name, ‘kibalensis’ refers to its discovery in Kibale National Park.

Read the paper in Zootaxa.

Peat swamp tree (Disepalum rawagambut), in Sumatra, Indonesia

A red flower and green leaves against a black background
The flowers of the Disepalum rawagambut helped scientists confirm it was an undescribed species.

Although scientists had been working at a peat swamp field site for a number of years, they were taken aback when in 2021, there was a mass flowering event and the forest was filled with colourful flowers and amazing smells. It was during this event that they noticed that a particular tree had unusual flowers, that weren't described anywhere, and by observing the flowers and the following fruits, they were able to confirm that it was a species new to science.

The Disepalum rawagambut is the first peat swamp tree to be described since the early 1960s, as there have not been many plant-focused studies in this habitat since. The scientists involved are working to study all the peat swamp trees on their site, ranging from the scents emitted by flowers, the properties of the wood and leaves, and ecological information such as whether the trees are able to survive droughts or flooding.

It's thought that there are between 300 and 350 species of trees in peat swamp forests across Southeast Asia, and that the number is so high because the freshwater wetlands create a number of microhabitats that can support a range of species.

Read the paper in Phytotaxa.

Tarantula (Taksinus bambus), in Thailand

A dark tarantula on the outside of a bamboo stem
The tarantula (Taksinus bambus) was found inside a bamboo culm by wildlife YouTuber JoCho Sippawat. © JoCho Sippawat

A whole new genus of tarantula was recently found and described from Thailand. It had been found by JoCho Sippawat (also known as Zongtum Sippawat), a nationally known wildlife YouTuber with over 2.5 million subscribers, who then went on to collaborate with arachnologists Dr. Narin Chomphuphuang and Chaowalit Songsangchote to describe and name the species.

Whilst it was known that tarantulas in Southeast Asia could be either terrestrial or arboreal, this is the first case of a species to be found on only one type of tree. The Taksinus bambus tarantula lives inside the culm (shoot or stalk) of bamboo. As the tarantula cannot actually make a hole into the bamboo itself, it uses the holes made by other invertebrates, small mammals or the natural process that cause bamboo cracking.

“We examined all of the trees in the area where the species was discovered. This species is unique because it is associated with bamboo, and we have never observed this tarantula species in any other plant,” says Dr Chomphuphuang. “Bamboo is important to this tarantula, not only in terms of lifestyle but also because it can only be found in high hill forests in the northern part of Thailand, at an elevation of about 1,000 m. It is not an exaggeration to say that they are now Thailand’s rarest tarantulas.”

The genus name of ‘Taksinus’ is in honour of the Thai king Taksin the Great (1734-1782), who had previously been named Phraya Tak when he was the governor of the Tak province, where this spider was found.

Read the full paper in ZooKeys.

Orchid (Gastrochilus pankajkumarii), in Vietnam

An orchid is thin leaves and yellow-orange flowers growing in a forest.
Gastrochilus pankajkumarii in flower. © NGUYEN Van Canh

In the Central Highlands of Vietnam, a small plant rises to about 10cm in height surrounded by forest. A lithophytic plant (growing in or on plants), this newly described species of orchid has speckled leaves and yellow-orange blooms.

It is the latest addition to Vietnam's orchid species list, and its species name honours Dr. Pankaj Kumar from the Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden, “for his great contribution to orchid taxonomy and ecology”.

Close-up of a yellow-orange flower.
Close-up of a Gastrochilus pankajkumarii flower. © NGUYEN Van Canh

Read the full paper in Taiwania.


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Main image: The tarantula (Taksinus bambus) was found inside a bamboo culm by wildlife YouTuber JoCho Sippawat. © JoCho Sippawat

Authors

Megan ShersbyEditorial and digital co-ordinator at BBC Wildlife Magazine, and countryfile.com
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