Taxonomists describe thousands and thousands of new extant (living) species every year, and 2023 has already seen some amazing new discoveries.

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Sometimes, these creatures 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 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.

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.

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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.

Answered by Sarah McPherson.

How many plant species are there?

According to Kew Gardens, there are 342,953 vascular plant species (plants that can transport nutrients and water). Then there are plants lacking a vascular system, such as mosses and lichen, which account for 22,750 species. Finally, algae or seaweeds number about 22,000.

So, adding these together makes a total of 387,703 recognised plant species – but with more discovered each year, the number is steadily rising.

Answered by David Hamilton.


Newly described species of 2023

DiCaprio’s snail-eating snake (Sibon irmelindicaprioae), Panama and Colombia

A pretty patterned snake amongst foliage.
Sibon irmelindicaprioae was named after Leonardo DiCaprio’s mother. © Alejandro Arteaga

A tree-dwelling species, DiCaprio’s snail-eating snake (Sibon irmelindicaprioae) is one of five new snail-eating snakes described by scientists. The paper’s authors have advised that the species is classified as Near Threatened, as its distribution includes many large areas with unspoiled forest. Although some of its habitat has been converted to pasture, the species is probably not declining fast enough to qualify for a threatened category.

The newly described species is known from 16 localities in Panama and Colombia. One of these is an isolated population in the Cordillera Oriental mountain range of Colombia, which occurs at higher elevations and has a slightly different pattern, and which may turn out to be a different species upon further genetic analysis.

The specific epithet ‘irmelindicaprioae’ honours Irmelin DiCaprio, the mother of the actor and conservationist Leonardo DiCaprio who chose the name.

Read the full paper in ZooKeys.

Stream treefrog (Hyloscirtus tolkieni), Ecuador

A coloured frog resting on a branch.
Hyloscirtus tolkieni was named in honour of J.R.R.Tolkien. © Juan C. Sánchez-Nivicela

Just a single individual of Hyloscirtus tolkieni, a stream treefrog, has been found and captured, despite focused searches during the initial fieldwork. However, this one individual was enough for the authors of this paper to be able to describe it as a new species. This is because it was distinct enough in its morphology from other species in the Hyloscirtus genus.

With only one individual found so far, the species’ known distribution is limited to the place where it was found and captured – the southern eastern slopes of the Cordillera Oriental, a chain of Andean mountains in the Río Negro-Sopladora National Park of Ecuador.

This genus of treefrogs is called stream treefrogs as they are usually found near streams, in which they breed. For this species, the specific epithet ‘tolkieni’ is named in honour of the author J.R.R.Tolkien, known for his works such as The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The scientists say that the colours of the newly described species “evoke the magnificent creatures that seem to only exist in fantasy worlds”.

Read the full paper in ZooKeys.

Bent-toed gecko (Cyrtodactylus santana), Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste

A brown gecko on a rock.
Cyrtodactylus santana is the first bent-toed gecko to be described to species level in the country. © Chan Kin Onn

The world’s fourth youngest country Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, occupying the eastern half of the island of Timor which is part of the Lesser Sunda Islands, has had its first species of bent-toed gecko described by scientists.

The gecko was first found during the day in the Lene Hara cave in Nino Konis Santana National Park, and initially evaded efforts by the scientists to catch it. Returning at night, as bent-toed geckos are nocturnal and would be less skittish then, the scientists were able to catch ten of the geckos. Genetic and morphological analysis confirmed that it was an undescribed species.

This is the first species of bent-toed gecko described by scientists in the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, which has had bent-toed geckos seen there before, but never described to species level. Limited biological surveying has taken place in Timor-Leste due to the violence and unrest prior to its independence, so scientists believe that there the country may have more undescribed species to be found. The species was found in the Lene Hara cave in Nino Konis Santana National Park.

The expedition which caught the geckos also found a number of plants and crabs that are being analysed and may prove to also be undescribed species.

The specific epithet ‘santana’ is derived from the Nino Konis Santana National Park where it was found, and which is named in honour of the freedom fighter Nino Konis Santana who was born within the boundaries of the park.

Read the full paper in ZooKeys.

Gymnures (Podogymnura intermedia and P. minima), Philippines

A shrew-like mammal, on the forest floor.
Podogymnura intermedia is one of two new gymnure species described.

With its golden-brown fur and pointed nose, P. intermedia looks a lot like a shrew, but belongs to a group of mammals known as gymnures. They are also known as hairy hedgehogs or moonrats, and are closely related to hedgehog.

Like all other members of the Podogymnura genus, P. intermedia is found in the Philippines. It was found during a survey on the mountains of eastern Mindanao, where there had never been surveys for mammals before.

“One of the highly distinct things about the Philippines is that every isolated mountain or little mountain range where we have done surveys is that each and every one has several species that occur nowhere else - not even on adjacent mountain ranges on the same island,” says co-author Laurence Heanery, Negaunee Curator of Mammals at the Field Museum in Chicago. “If you don't go look, you don't know what is there.”

The specific epithet ‘intermedia’ is derived from the Latin word ‘intermedium’, translating to ‘intermediate’. It was used for this new hedgehog-like as the species is intermediate in size between P. auroespinula (the largest member of the genus) and the other two species, P. truei and P. minima.

It is also intermediate in the amount of golden colour in its fur. “P. truei and P. minima have dark fur with tiny golden sparkles, P. intermedia has golden streaks in the fur, and P. aurospinula has long golden hairs mixed into its pelage,” says Heaney. “They are all pretty cute animals.”

It’s hoped that further surveys can be undertaken to learn more about the species, but with preparations for undertaking them, doing the fieldwork in remote areas and then analysing the data all being very time-consuming, it’s unknown when these will be able to take place.

Although indigenous people and conservation groups are hoping to preserve their homelands, the species may be threatened by habitat destruction and degradation if mining and agriculture expand in the area, as well as building roads to increase access.

In the same paper, the authors also elevated P. minima from a subspecies of P. truei to species level, as their genetic and anatomical analysis of it found that it was distinct. The paper brings the number of Podogymnura species up to four – doubling the number of known species in that genus – all of which are endemic to the Philippines.

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Read the paper in Zootaxa.

Authors

Megan ShersbyNaturalist, writer and content creator
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