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Finding new species

By Jeremy Hance, mongabay.com
October 21, 2010


Species discovery: how do scientists find and describe new species—and the answer to other taxonomy questions

We are fortunate enough to share our world with an incredible array of wonderful and wild creatures. Yet despite centuries of scientists searching the world over for species and meticulously describing them, we still know surprisingly little about global biodiversity.

Currently scientists have described 1.9 million species from Balaenoptera musculus (the blue whale) to Oxysternon festivum (the red dung beetle), yet conservative estimates of the number of species on Earth range anywhere from 10 to 20 million species (some estimates jump to 100 million). If bacteria are added to this list then the number of species on Earth likely jumps another 10 million or so.


Gumprechts green pitviper (Trimeresurus gumprechti), which was described in 2002, is found across much of the Greater Mekong region. Image © Rene Ries.
In other words, at the very best—and not including bacteria—humans have identified only 20 percent of the species with which we share our planet. Whatever the percentage (and it's probably not nearly as high as 20), this means the discovery of new species will be on-going for some time now. In fact, if we take 2008 as an example—when researchers discovered just over 18,000 species—it would take 444 more years to uncover the world's additional 8 million (very conservative estimate) unknown species. If 50 million species inhabit the Earth, it would take researchers 2,500 more years to catalogue the world's species at current levels.

The search for species is even more pressing now that scientists believe we are either entering or already in the midst of a mass extinction. Due to a variety of human driven impacts—including deforestation, habitat loss, pollution, climate change, invasive species, and overexploitation such as through bushmeat or the pet trade—species populations are falling worldwide.


A new species of miniature frog was discovered in Borneo in 2010. Microhyla nepenthicola, shown here on the tip of a pencil, is about the size of a pea. © Indraneil Das/ Institute of Biodiversity and Environmental Conservation
The discovery of new species has also become important for many conservation organizations in attracting media attention and even funding. Few wildlife stories gain as much attention as new species and, it goes without saying, that certain new species (such as a new mammal) will receive more attention than others (a new mushroom).

But how do scientists find and describe new species?

The process of describing species

When describing a new species, scientists must collect a 'type specimen': this means a dead individual of the species. There have been a few instances where photographs including other genetic samples have been used to describe a new species successfully, and no individual is killed, but these are currently much in the minority.


Formally described in 2010, Durrell’s vontsira (Salanoia durrelli) was the first new carnivorous mammal to be discovered in Madagascar in 24 years. © Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust.
The species must be closely examined to first determine that it doesn't in fact belong to another already-described species. For well-known species, such as a new mammal, this is easier than, for example, a rainforest insect. The specimen is compared to other similar species, including using descriptions and illustrations in published literature. If species appear very similar, genetic testing is increasingly used as a tool to determine new species.

Once the species is determined as new to science, researchers write a formal description of it, take photos and/or provide illustrations, and invent a new scientific name. After completing the paper, researchers then submit it to a scientific journal. The editor of the journal will circulate the new finding to other experts with those particular types of animals or plants. If the other experts agree that the new species is valid, the journal accepts the paper and the specimen officially becomes a new species. This process is long and often takes years between initial discovery and formal acceptance of the new species.

Cryptic species throw a wrench into this: these are species that look remarkably similar to another species, but are genetically unique. DNA is increasingly being used as a tool to determine new species as well as to discover the relationship between previously known species.

Finding species: where are the unknown species hiding?

If you want to earn scientific fame by discovering a new species, here are a few tips: think small, think underwater or underground, and think invertebrates and plants.

This is not to imply that all the world's large land-dwelling species have been found—just this year researchers announced the discoveries of a new species of monitor lizard that was as long as a adult human, a new monkey from the Brazilian Amazon, and a new carnivorous mammal from a lake in Madagascar—but such discoveries are more a matter of right place-right time over persistence.

While scientists still find new species in terrestrial ecosystems, a single dive to the depths of the ocean is likely to produce a new species. Cave systems have also yielded a number of new species, especially those that have only recently been explained. When it comes to types of species, insects are the most commonly discovered: thousands of new insects are found every year. Beetles are the most numerous.

History of species discovery and description

The history of species discovery and description is not only exciting—madness, exploration, untimely demise—it is also important for understanding the structure taxonomists use to describe species, for example the reason why every species is known by two Latinized names—the scientific name—one representing the genus and the other the species.

While the effort to categorize species stretches far back in history—Aristotle attempted it—today's modern system of categorizing and naming species largely stems from 18th Century Swedish scientist, Carl Linnaeus. In two seminal works—Species Plantarum and Systema Naturae—Linnaeus outlined the hierarchal structure employed today for classifying species. Latin was the language of choice, because it was dead and therefore fixed. Within his works, Linnaeus classified thousands of plants and animals from all around the world with Latinized names.

But Linnaeus didn't just build a structure to categorize species that would last to present-day, he was also instrumental in pushing the science of taxonomy further. As one of the most influential scientists of his day, Linnaeus chose and funded young biologist to travel the world, find new species, and return to him with specimens. These students have come to be known as 'the apostles of Linnaeus'. Seven of these 'apostles' died on their explorations, a couple went mad or became addicts, but many brought home species from as far away as China, South Africa, and the Amazon.

Linnaeus updated

While Linnaeus, with help from his traveling apostles, began the formal and large-scale effort to describe the world's life-forms, it has, of course, changed considerably in over two hundred years. When biologists refer to species today they often give the year of the species' formal description and the scientist who described it. For example, the well-known panda bear is Ailuropoda melanoleuca David, 1869.

Also contemporary scientists categorize a species according to where it fits in the evolutionary tree, a concept that would have been unknown to Linnaeus as he developed his system over a hundred years before Darwin outlined the theory of evolution. In other words, animals that share the same genus are more closely related in evolutionary terms than animals that share only the same family.

Instead of relying on five classifications, as Linnaeus did, researchers have developed a seven rung hierarchy to describe a unique life form: kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species. For example, the tiger, which was described by Linnaeus, is classified in descending order as anamalia (animal), chordate (vertebrates), mammalia (mammals), carnivore (carnivores or mostly meat-eaters), felidae (cats), panthera (cats that roar), and tigris (the tiger). The tiger is additionally further separated into six surviving subspecies and three extinct subspecies.

Subspecies are a puzzling and at times difficult classification that establishes when a species has clearly splintered into distinct populations, usually geographically separated, but has not yet evolved far enough from each other to be considered separate species. One could think of a subspecies as unconnected populations: in other words the distinct populations would interbreed if they could, yet something—most often a physical barrier—is making interbreeding impossible. Debates over whether or not an animal is a unique species or simply a subspecies can be complex, rowdy, and linger for decades. This is because the debate over subspecies and species has real-world consequences: subspecies are rarely given conservation attention and funding. One example of a subspecies in flux is the forest elephant from the African Congo. The forest elephant is considered by some scientists to be distinct enough from the African elephant to be considered its own species, others, however, claim it is only a subspecies. If the forest elephant was accepted as a species today, the effort to save it from extinction would likely gain sudden life and an influx of funding. On the other side, if too many 'subspecies' are upgraded without cause, conservationists worry it could 'cheapen' the idea of a species.


Articles on recent species discoveries

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Scientists uncover new crocodile in Africa
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Rainforest news review for 2013
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Biggest new animal discoveries of 2013 (photos)
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Scientists discover a new coral in the French Polynesia
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New marsupial discovered in Ecuador
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Top 10 HAPPY environmental stories of 2013
(12/19/2013) China begins to tackle pollution, carbon emissions: As China's environmental crisis worsens, the government has begun to unveil a series of new initiatives to curb record pollution and cut greenhouse emissions. The world's largest consumer of coal, China's growth in emissions is finally slowing and some experts believe the nation's emissions could peak within the decade. If China's emissions begin to fall, so too could the world's.


Scientists make one of the biggest animal discoveries of the century: a new tapir
(12/16/2013) In what will likely be considered one of the biggest (literally) zoological discoveries of the Twenty-First Century, scientists today announced they have discovered a new species of tapir in Brazil and Colombia. The new mammal, hidden from science but known to local indigenous tribes, is actually one of the biggest animals on the continent, although it's still the smallest living tapir. Described in the Journal of Mammology, the scientists have named the new tapir Tapirus kabomani after the name for 'tapir' in the local Paumari language: Arabo kabomani.


New mountain porcupine discovered in Brazil (photos)
(12/09/2013) In Brazil's Baturite Mountains, scientists have uncovered a new species of prehensile-tailed porcupine, according to a new paper in Revista Nordestina de Biologia. Dubbed, the Baturite porcupine (Coendou baturitensis), the new species was discovered when scientists noticed significant differences between it and its closest relative, the Brazilian porcupine (Coendou prehensilis). The name prehensile-tailed refers to these porcupines long, mobile tail which they use as a fifth limb to adroitly climb trees.


Sky islands: exploring East Africa's last frontier
(12/04/2013) The montane rainforests of East Africa are little-known to the global public. The Amazon and Congo loom much larger in our minds, while the savannas of East Africa remain the iconic ecosystems for the region. However these ancient, biodiverse forests—sitting on the tops of mountains rising from the African savanna—are home to some remarkable species, many found only in a single forest. A team of international scientists—Michele Menegon, Fabio Pupin, and Simon Loader—have made it their mission to document the little-known reptiles and amphibians in these so-called sky islands, many of which are highly imperiled.


Scientists discover new cat species roaming Brazil
(11/27/2013) As a family, cats are some of the most well-studied animals on Earth, but that doesn't mean these adept carnivores don't continue to surprise us. Scientists have announced today the stunning discovery of a new species of cat, long-confused with another. Looking at the molecular data of small cats in Brazil, researchers found that the tigrina—also known as the oncilla in Central America—is actually two separate species. The new species has been dubbed Leopardus guttulus and is found in the Atlantic Forest of southern Brazil, while the other Leopardus tigrinus is found in the cerrado and Caatinga ecosystems in northeastern Brazil.


Canopy crusade: world's highest network of camera traps keeps an eye on animals impacted by gas project
(11/21/2013) Oil, gas, timber, gold: the Amazon rainforest is rich in resources, and their exploitation is booming. As resource extraction increases, so does the development of access roads and pipelines. These carve their way through previously intact forest, thereby interrupting the myriad pathways of the species that live there. For species that depend on the rainforest canopy, this can be particularly problematic.


New bat species discovered in Brazil leaves another at risk
(11/15/2013) A team of researchers has discovered a new species of bat in Brazil, which has put a previously known species, Bokermann's nectar bat (Lonchophylla bokermanni), at risk of extinction. Long thought to comprise one species, the bat populations of the Atlantic Forest and the Cerrado – the tropical savannah of Brazil's interior - are in fact distinct from one another, according to a new study in Zootaxa. Scientists now say the Atlantic Forest's population represents a newly described species, which they have dubbed Peracchi's nectar bat (Lonchophylla peracchii).


Newly discovered beetles construct private homes out of leaf holes and feces
(11/12/2013) Scientists have discovered two new species of leaf beetles in southern India that display a novel way of using leaf holes and their fecal pellets to build shelters – a nesting behavior previously not known among leaf beetles. Discovered in the forests of the Western Ghats in the states of Karnataka and Kerala, the scientists have named these pin-head sized leaf beetles Orthaltica syzygium and Orthaltica terminalia, after the plants they feed on: Syzygium species (e.g., the Java plum) and Terminalia species (e.g., the flowering murdah).


Five new, cryptic bats discovered in Senegal
(11/11/2013) An international research team led by Daurina Koubinova has discovered five new species of vesper bats during a series of expeditions to Senegal's Niokolo-Koba National Park. The new species are considered cryptic, because their genetic makeup is different despite physical similarities. The new bats have yet to be named.


Adorable baby olinguito photographed in Colombia (picture)
(11/01/2013) Researchers returning from an expedition to a cloud forest in Colombia have released photos of the world's most recently-discovered carnivore, the olinguito.


DNA tests reveal new dolphin species (photos)
(10/30/2013) With the help of DNA tests, scientists have declared a new dolphin species that dwells off the coast of northern Australia. The discovery was made after a team of researchers looked at the world's humpback dolphins (in the genus Sousa), which sport telltale humps just behind their dorsal fins. While long-known to science, the new, as-yet-unnamed species was previously lumped with other humpback dolphins in the Indo-Pacific region.


New species of beetle discovered in megacity
(10/30/2013) When imagining the discovery of a new species, most people conjure thoughts of intrepid explorers, battling the odds in remote rainforests. But this needn't be the case, at least according to a new study published in Zookeys. The study reports the discovery of a new species of water beetle in the heart of the 10th largest megacity in the world: Manila, Philippines.


'Lost' bird rediscovered in New Caledonia along with 16 potentially new species (photos)
(10/29/2013) In early 2011, Conservation International (CI) dubbed the forests of New Caledonia the second-most imperiled in the world after those on mainland Southeast Asia. Today, CI has released the results of a biodiversity survey under the group's Rapid Assessment Program (RAP) to New Caledonia's tallest mountain, Mount Panié. During the survey researchers rediscovered the 'lost' crow honeyeater and possibly sixteen new or recently-described species. Over 20 percent larger than Connecticut, New Caledonia is a French island east of Australia in the Pacific Ocean.


New to science: 2 lizards, 1 frog discovered on Australian expedition (pictures)
(10/28/2013) Researchers from James Cook University and National Geographic discovered three new herp species — a cryptic leaf-tail gecko, a colorful skink, and a frog — during an expedition to northeastern Australia. The species are described in three papers published in October in the journal Zootaxa.


Pictures: 441 new species described in the Amazon rainforest since 2010
(10/25/2013) Scientists described at least 441 previously unknown species from Amazon rainforest between 2010 and 2013, according a new report from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).


Scientist splits Amazonian giants into separate species
(10/23/2013) It's hard to mistake an arapaima for anything else: these massive, heavily-armored, air-breathing fish (they have to surface every few minutes) are the megafauna of the Amazon's rivers. But despite their unmistakability, and the fact that they have been hunted by indigenous people for millennia, scientists still know relatively little about arapaima, including just how many species there are. Since the mid-Nineteenth Century, scientists have lumped all arapaima into one species: Arapaima gigas. However, two recent studies in Copeia split the arapaimas into at least five total species—and more may be coming.


Yeti may be undescribed bear species
(10/20/2013) The purported Yeti, an ape-like creature that walks upright and roams the remote Himalayas, may in fact be an ancient polar bear species, according to new DNA research by Bryan Sykes with Oxford University. Sykes subjected two hairs from what locals say belonged to the elusive Yeti only to discover that the genetics matched a polar bear jawbone found in Svalbard, Norway dating from around 120,000 (though as recent as 40,000 years ago).


Scientists discover cocoa frog and 60 other new species in remote Suriname (photos)
(10/11/2013) In one of the most untouched and remote rainforests in the world, scientists have discovered some sixty new species, including a chocolate-colored frog and a super-mini dung beetle. The species were uncovered in Southeastern Suriname during a Rapid Assessment Program (RAP); run by Conservation International (CI), RAPS involve sending teams of specialists into little-known ecosystems to record as much biodiversity as they can in a short time. In this case, sixteen researchers from around the world had about three weeks to document the region's biodiversity.


4 new species of legless lizards discovered in California
(09/18/2013) Four previously unknown species of legless lizard have been described in California, report researchers from the University of California at Berkeley and Cal State-Fullerton.


23rd new bird species of 2013 discovered
(09/18/2013) A ground-warbler from the Philippines is the twenty-third species of bird described in 2013.


Video: scientists discover new walking shark species in Indonesia
(09/11/2013) A species of shark that uses its fins to 'walk' along the bottom of the ocean floor has been discovered off the coast of Indonesia. The shark, Hemiscyllium halmahera, uses its fins to wiggle along the seabed and forage for small fish and crustaceans, scientists from Conservation International said on Friday.


Featured video: 'this is day one for the olinguito'
(09/04/2013) Last month scientists unveiled a remarkable discovery: a new mammal in the order Carnivora (even though it mostly lives off fruits) in the Andean cloud forests. This was the first new mammal from that order in the Western Hemisphere since the 1970s. The olinguito had long been mistaken for its closest relatives, olingos—small tree-dwelling mammals that inhabit the lowland rainforests of South and Central America—however genetic research showed the olinguito had actually been separated by 3-4 million years from its cousins.


Finding a needle in a haystack: two new species of octocorals discovered in the Pacific Ocean
(09/04/2013) The vast expanse of the Earth's oceans makes finding a new species like finding a needle in a haystack. In fact, finding a needle in a haystack may be easier than finding a new species of octocoral in the Pacific Ocean. But Gary Williams with the California Academy of Sciences has recently found not only one but two new species, including a new genus of octocoral.


Meet the BABY olinguito
(08/18/2013) Since its announcement on Thursday, the olinguito—the world's newest mammal—has taken the world by storm. Hundreds of articles have been written about the new species, while its cuddly appearance has already been made the subject of cartoons. Now, conservationists have released the first photos of a baby olinguito. The new photos come from La Mesenia Conservation Project in Colombia, an Andean cloud forest reserve that is a project area for the NGO SavingSpecies.


New tiny insect named after Peter Pan fairy discovered in Central America
(08/16/2013) A new genus of fairyfly has been discovered in Costa Rica. The new species aptly named Tinkerbella nana after the fairy in J.M. Barrie’s play ‘Peter Pan’ is one of the smallest winged insects in the neotropics. Found in both temperate and tropical climates, the fairyfly is not actually a fly as its name suggests, but instead is more closely related to wasps – being classed within the superfamily Chalcidoidea, or the “chalcid wasps”.


Scientists discover teddy bear-like mammal hiding out in Andean cloud forests (photos)
(08/15/2013) While the olinguito looks like a wild, tree-climbing teddy bear with a cat's tail, it's actually the world's newest mammalian carnivore. The remarkable discovery—the first mammal carnivore uncovered in the Western Hemisphere since the 1970s—was found in the lush cloud forests of the Andes, a biodiverse region home to a wide-range of species found no-where else. Dubbed the olinguito (Bassaricyon neblina), the new mammal is a member of a little-known, elusive group of mammals—olingos—that are related to raccoons, coatis, and kinkajous. However, according to its description in the journal Zookeys, the olinguito is the most distinct member of its group, separated from other olingos by 3-4 million years (or longer than Homo sapiens have walked the Earth).


Scientists discover new flying mammal in bushmeat market
(08/06/2013) The bushmeat markets of Lao PDR (Laos) are filled with racks of wild game harvested both legally and illegally from the surrounding landscapes. While these meat markets certainly provide local protein to patrons, for wildlife biologists they offer something more. These bizarre zoological exhibits are a rich source of information about wildlife populations and wildlife consumption in remote areas.


New bird species discovered in Peruvian cloud forest
(08/02/2013) A new bird species has been discovered in the montane forests of Peru.


Meet Thor's shrew: scientists discover new mammal with a superior spine
(07/30/2013) In 1917, Joel Asaph Allen examined an innocuous species of shrew from the Congo Basin and made a remarkable discovery: the shrew's spine was unlike any seen before. Interlocking lumbar vertebrae made the species' spine four times strong than any other vertebrate on Earth adjusted for its size. The small mammal had been discovered only seven years before and was dubbed the hero shrew (Scutisorex somereni), after the name give to it by the local Mangbetu people, who had long known of the shrew's remarkable abilities.


Population of newly discovered lemur in Madagascar down to last 50 individuals (photo)
(07/30/2013) Researchers have discovered a new — and critically endangered — species of lemur on the island of Madagascar. The primate is formally described in the journal Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution.


New poison dart frog discovered in 'Lost World'
(07/19/2013) Scientists have described a new species of poison dart frog after discovering it during a study to determine the impact of tourism on biodiversity in a tract of rainforest known as 'The Lost World' in Guyana.


Stunning moth species discovered in the mountains of China
(07/17/2013) A new species of moth (Stenoloba solaris) was discovered in the Yunnan province of China, a new addition to the nascent genus of moth, Stenoloba. The discovery was published in the open access journal ZooKeys. The moth is colloquially known as the “sun moth” because of the intricate pattern that covers its upper wings and resembles the rising sun.


Tiny suckermouth catfish discovered in Brazil
(07/10/2013) Scientists have discovered a new suckermouth catfish in the Rio Paraíba do Sul basin in southeastern Brazil.


New shrew discovered in Vietnam forest
(07/08/2013) Researchers have described a previously unknown species of white toothed shrew in the forests of Vietnam. The study was published July 2 in the open access journal ZooKeys.


New long-horned beetle discovered in China
(07/03/2013) Recent expeditions by the Chinese Academy of Science’s Institute of Zoology to the Yunnan Province of China have uncovered the existence of a new species of long-horned beetle. This newly discovered beetle has a beautifully colored blue-green body with short, slender, and distinctively blue legs according to a new article in Zookeys.


New bird species discovered in Cambodia's largest city
(06/26/2013) A previously unknown species of bird has been found hiding in plain sight after scientists photographed what was thought to be more abundant species at a construction site on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capitol and largest city. Subsequent analysis revealed the species to be distinct.


Bird extravaganza: scientists discover 15 new species of birds in the Amazon
(06/12/2013) From 2000-2009, scientists described on average seven new bird species worldwide every year. Discovering a new bird is one of the least common of any species group, given that birds are highly visible, mobile, and have been scrutinized for centuries by passionate ornithologists and birders. But descriptions this year already blows away the record year over the last decade (in 2001 when nine new birds were described): scientists working in the southern Amazon have recorded an incredible 15 new species of birds according to the Portuguese publication Capa Aves. In fact, this is the largest group of new birds uncovered in the Brazilian in the Amazon in 140 years.


Chewbacca bat, beetle with explosive farts among oddities spotted on Mozambique expedition
(06/04/2013) The 'Chewbaka' bat, a cave-dwelling frog, and a diminutive elephant shrew were among hundreds of species documented during a one-month survey of a park that was ravaged during Mozambique's 17-year civil war. The findings suggest that biodiversity in Gorongosa National Park in Central Mozambique is well on the road towards recovery, opening a new chapter for the 4,000-square-kilometer protected area.


Scientists describe over 100 new beetles from New Guinea
(06/03/2013) In a single paper, a team of researchers have succinctly described 101 new species of weevils from New Guinea, more than doubling the known species in the beetle genus, Trigonopterus. Since describing new species is hugely laborious and time-intensive, the researchers turned to a new method of species description known as 'turbo-taxonomy,' which employs a mix of DNA-sequencing and taxonomic expertise to describe species more rapidly.


Two new arachnids discovered in Brazilian caves (photos)
(05/29/2013) Scientists have discovered two new species of short-tailed whipscorpions (in the order Schizomida) in limestone caves in Brazil, according to a new paper published in PLoS ONE. The new species—dubbed Rowlandius ubajara and Rowlandius potiguara—add new knowledge to a group of arachnids that is little known in South America outside of the Amazon.


Scientists discover two mini-spiders in China (photos)
(05/23/2013) Scientists have uncovered two miniature spiders living on mountains in China's southern region, one of which is among the smallest spiders recorded worldwide, according to a new paper in ZooKeys. Both spiders belong to the Mysmenidae family, which is made up of mini-spiders with eight eyes.


Three new species of carnivorous snails discovered in endangered habitat in Thailand (photos)
(05/23/2013) Scientists from Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok and the Natural History Museum, London recently discovered three new species of carnivorous snails in northern Thailand. However, the celebration of these discoveries is tainted by the fact that the new snails are already threatened with extinction due to the destruction of their limestone habitat.













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