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The Etendeka round-eared sengi (Macroscelides micus). Photo by: Galen Rathbun/California Academy of Sciences.
Biologists describe upwards of 15,000 previously undocumented species every year. Some of these species are complete surprises, occasionally representing new genera. Others may be identified after genetic analysis distinguishes them from closely-related species. Some — especially conspicuous birds and mammals — are already known to local populations, but hadn’t been formally described by scientists.
Below are some of the new species highlights from 2014. Included are species that were first formally described in the past year.
New wasp builds nest out of ant corpses (Hance)
Adult female of the new wasp species, the bone-house wasp. Photo courtesy of Staab et al.
If ants made horror movies this is probably what it would look like: mounds of murdered ants sealed up in a cell. The villain of the piece—at least from the perspective of the ants—is a new species of spider wasp, which scientists have aptly dubbed the bone-house wasp (Deuteragenia ossarium) in a paper published in July in the journal PLOS ONE. But the reason it fills a nest chamber with dead ants is even more surprising: baby proofing.
“Our discovery demonstrates in an impressive way, what fascinating strategies of offspring-protection have evolved in the animal kingdom,” said lead author Michael Stabb with the University of Freiburg.
Here’s how this works: spider wasps (in the family Pompilidae) build large nests usually constructed out of plant debris, soil, and resin. Each nest contains several cells where the mother wasp lays her eggs. Once the nest is constructed and the eggs are laid, however, she abandons them, leaving them vulnerable to predation and parasites, such as parasitical wasps.
Close-up of the dead ant chamber. After killing the ants, the bone-house wasp encloses them in a cell. Photo courtesy of Staab et al.
But the bone-house wasp from Southeast China has done something novel, which the authors describe as “a surprising nesting behavior that was previously unknown in the entire animal kingdom.” It builds a final outer layer cell around its brood in which it piles dead ants, sealing them up in a seeming bug-recreation of Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.” Yet the wasp doesn’t do this out of vengeance, but to better-safeguard its nest.
A diminutive elephant-relative discovered in Namibia (Hance)
Meet the world’s newest elephant shrew: the Etendeka round-eared sengi. Photo by: Jack Dumbacher/California Academy of Sciences.
Forget marsupials, the world’s strangest group of mammals are actually those in the Afrotheria order. This superorder of mammals contains a motley crew that at first glance seems to have nothing in common: from the biggest land animals on the planet—elephant—to tiny, rodent sized mammals such as tenrecs, hyraxes, golden moles, and sengis. But there’s more: the group even includes marine mammals, such as dugongs and manatees. Finally, they also include as a member the most evolutionary-distinct mammal on the planet: the aardvark. While these species may seem entirely unrelated—and many were long shuffled into other groups—decades of genetic and morphological research now point to them all springing from the same tree. In June 2014, though, scientists announced the newest, and arguably cutest, member of Atrotheria: the Etendeka round-eared sengi.
Described in the Journal of Mammology, the Etendeka round-eared sengi (Macroscelides micus) was discovered in the northwest corner of Namibia.
“It…might seem remarkable that Macroscelides micus escaped detection for more than 100 years since the first sengis were being described, but it occurs in a small and remote arid area that is difficult to access and has only recently been explored by small-mammal biologists,” the authors of the paper write.
It is distinguished from other sengis first by its size: the new species is the smallest sengi yet recorded. Only 19 centimeters long (7.5 inches), the new mammal weighs just 28 grams (0.9 ounces), or less than a dozen U.S. pennies. Moreover, the species is distinct for a hairless gland under its tail, pink-hued skin (as opposed to dark skin), and a rusty-colored fur which helps it blend into the reddish soil of the dry Etendeka Plateau.
Biologists catalog the world’s 10,000th reptile species (Hance)
Cyrtodactylus vilaphongi: the world’s 10,000th reptile. Photo by: Truong Nguyen.
In July, Cyrtodactylus vilaphongi, a gecko from the forests of Laos, became the 10,000th reptile species entered into the Reptile Database, an online catalog of all the world’s living reptiles.
“Officially, we have logged 10,038 reptile species into the database, which is up from 9,952 that was reported in April,” said Peter Uetz, the founder and editor of the Reptile Database.
Scientists discover carnivorous water rat in Indonesia (Erickson-Davis)
The first specimen of Waiomys mamasae ever seen by scientists. Photo by Kevin C. Rowe.
Researchers have discovered a new carnivorous water rat on the island of Sulawesi that’s so unique it represents an entirely new genus. They believe many more rodent species await discovery in this relatively undisturbed part of Indonesia, but mining and other types of development may threaten vital habitat before it’s even surveyed.
Named Waiomys mamasae and described in a paper published in the journal Zootaxa, the species is known by a single animal that was caught by hand in a small stream in Western Sulawesi’s mountainous interior. Scientists were alerted to the species’ existence by local people who use it as a talisman to protect their homes against fire.
Wolf snake discovered in Cambodia named after an Australian zoo (Butler)
New species: the Cambodian kukri. Photo by: Photo: Neang Thy/FFI.
A new species of wolf snake was discovered in the forests of the Cardamom Mountains of southeast Cambodia. The species was described in the journal Zootaxa.
Lycodon zoosvictoriae is named after Zoos Victoria, a conservation group based in Parkville, Australia that has provided support to Fauna & Flora International (FFI), whose researchers — along with herpetologists from Zoological Research Museum Alexander Koenig in Germany — made the discovery.
Lycodon zoosvictoriae is a cryptic species that is thought to be both arboreal and terrestrial. Like other wolf snakes, the species is characterized by long, large teeth in the front of their mouth. Lycodon zoosvictoriae measures only 40 cm (16 inches) and likely hunts small lizards and frogs.
Emerald-faced reptile discovered in Ecuador (Butler)
A two inch long Alopoglossus viridiceps shade lizard. Photo by Torres-Carvajal.
In May researchers described a colorful lizard species in the cloud forests of northwestern Ecuador.
The species, dubbed Alopoglossus viridiceps and described in the journal ZooKeys, is a type of shade lizard.
Like other shade lizards, Alopoglossus viridiceps lives in the leaf litter of high elevation could forests, which in Ecuador have been great diminished in recent decades. Shade lizards are notable in that their tongues are covered by folds rather than scale-like papillae, according to a statement released by ZooKeys.
Alopoglossus viridiceps was discovered after field and lab work Omar Torres-Carvajal and Simón Lobos of the Museo de Zoología QCAZ at the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador. There are now seven known Alopoglossus species, six of which are found in Ecuador.
14 species of ‘dancing frogs’ described from India (Erickson-Davis)
Micrixalus nelliyampathi. Photo by Biju Das
Scientists have discovered 14 new species of frogs in the mountainous tropical forests of India’s Western Ghats, all of which are described in a recent study published in the Ceylon Journal of Science. The new species are all from a single genus, and are collectively referred to as “dancing frogs” due to the unusual courtship behavior of the males.
The Western Ghats (WG) is a strip of mountains that runs parallel to the west coast of the southern half of the subcontinent. Renowned as one of the world’s top biodiversity hotspots, the lush forests of the WG are home to a vast array of species, including 139 mammal and 508 bird species, many of which are endemic and threatened by human encroachment.
A “dancing” Micrixalus kottigeharensis. Photo by Biju Das
New species, genera, and even families of animals are discovered in the WG on a regular basis. In the past 15 years alone, scientists have discovered 75 new amphibians in the WG. The area is particularly conducive to the formation of new amphibian species because of its overall warm and humid climate, its isolation from other amphibian-friendly areas, and because it contains many different stream systems that effectively separate frog populations from one another.
The 14 new frog species most recently described were found over a period of 12 years by Dr. Biju Das of the University of Delhi along with other researchers from other Indian institutions. The frogs are all from the genus Micrixalus, a group that diverged from other frog genera about 85 million years ago, and are known to exist only in the WG. Commonly known as “dancing frogs,” these species greatly expand the dancing frog family, Micrixalidae, of which only 11 species were previously known.
Micrixalus sali. Photo by Biju Das
Micrixalus sairandhri. Photo by Biju Das
The frogs earned their colorful moniker by unique leg movements the males make when trying to attract mates. While most male frogs simply croak to get the attention of females, male dancing frogs twist, extend, and wave their hind legs in a display called “foot-flagging.” Das believes this is because they live in fast-flowing streams, an environment too noisy for conventional croaking.
“Foot-flagging probably evolved multiple times in this group as an adaption to overcome the ambient noise of flowing water in the environment,” Das told mongabay.com. “Besides calling, males display the foot-flagging behavior to communicate and to attract females in order to complete their breeding cycle. If a particular group of frogs do not inhabit noisy environments, then they probably do not need to evolve adaptations such as foot-flagging.”
The Harry Potter wasp (Dasgupta)
Female Ampulex dementor. Photo by: Ohl et al.
Whether a die-hard Harry Potter fan or not, you probably know what dementors are. They were the guards of Azkaban—dark hooded evil beings that sucked the soul out of their victims, leaving them alive but “empty-shelled.”
These fictional creatures now share their name with a new species of cockroach wasp, insects that turn cockroaches into zombies. By popular vote, a previously unnamed cockroach wasp species from Thailand was christened Ampulex dementor at the Natural History Museum in Berlin.
Visitors at the museum had four names to choose from Ampulex bicolor indicative of the wasp’s distinctive black and red color, Ampulex mon referring to the Mon people of Thailand (for its geographic origin), Ampulex plagiator for its attempts to mimic the appearance and movement of ants, and Ampulex dementor for its peculiar way of hunting cockroaches that make them lose their “free-will.” At the end of the ballot, dementors emerged victorious.
“I would likely have voted for it myself,” said Michael Sharkey, an entomologist at the University of Kentucky, whose team collected the museum specimens of these wasps from the Khao Kho National Park in Thailand. “What I find interesting about the name is that what is considered a fantasy among humans, the dementors of Harry Potter, is a reality in the world of insects.”
American snapping turtles split into three species (Hance)
An alligator snapping turtle. Photo by: Garry Tucker/USFWS.
So, you’re a fish swimming in a river in Louisiana. Hungry, you see a little worm wiggling out from the river bed. You swoop in for the ambush only to have that little worm turn into the gaping maw of some prehistoric-looking monster out of fishy nightmares. You’ve been duped: it’s too late to escape as the beast’s jagged jaws close over you. Meet the alligator snapping turtle…or one of several species of alligator snapping turtle. New research finds that this American reptile, described as a single species since 1853, is actually three distinct species, separated by millions of years of evolution.
Using genetic sampling, scientists determined that different river systems hold distinct alligator snapping turtles. They named two new species in addition to the regular alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temminckii): the Suwanne alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys suwanniensis), found only in the Suwanne River in Florida and Georgia, and the Apalachicola alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys apalachicolae) inhabiting the Apalachicola River and its watersheds in Florida, Georgia, and Alabama.
“Unlike common snappers, these turtles do not move from river to river; they’re isolated and have been for millions of years, through many glacial ages,” said co-author Joe Roman, a biologist at the University of Vermont.
In fact, the Suwanne alligator snapping turtle split from the main line at least five million years ago, while the Apalachicola alligator snapping turtle is at least three million years old, according to the paper.
Thorny tree frog discovered in Vietnam (Moll-Rocek)
Thorny tree frog (Gracixalus lumarius). Photo by Jodi Rowley/Australian Museum Research Institute.
Evening fog settled quickly on Mount Ngoc Linh, as the steady drone of cicadas and crickets took up their usual nighttime chorus. The night calm was broken by sudden crashing through the thick bamboo stands and excited voices. High in this isolated cloud forest in central Vietnam, Dr. Jodi Rowley and her colleagues had come upon the first thorny tree frog (Gracixalus lumarius) known to science. They’d passed through thick underbrush and bamboo, enduring black midges, leeches and ticks to wait for nightfall to begin their regular nocturnal search for amphibians. She knew she’d found something undescribed when she noticed the sharp yellow spines covering the frog’s back.
The new species is described in Zootaxa. The four-centimeter critter sports a bright pink underbelly and dazzling gold-specked eyes. Only males have their backs covered in thorns, which become more pronounced during the mating season and are thought to help females better identify sexually fit mates. Well-adapted to its habitat on the steep slopes of high mountains, the thorny tree frog has evolved to lay its eggs in small water-filled hollows in trees, providing a protected area for their tadpoles to grow.
Phallic amphibian found in Myanmar (Butler)
Head of new species: the colorful ichthyophis. Photo by: Harry Taylor (The Natural History Museum, London) from Wilkinson et al.
Scientists have discovered a new species of limbless amphibians, known as caecilians, in Myanmar. Dubbing the species, the colorful ichthyophis (Ichthyophis multicolor), the researchers describe the new amphibian in a recent paper published in Zootaxa. The world’s most famous caecilian is the playfully named penis snake (Atretochoana eiselti) which was rediscovered in Brazil in 2011.
Caecilians are a bizarre order of amphibians that superficially resemble snakes or earthworms, even bearing rings on their bodies that are earthworm-like. Many caecilians spend their lives under the soil, making them little-studied by researchers, yet they are widely diverse: over 10 separate families have been identified across the tropics. The caecilian genus Ichthyophis, to which the new species belongs, is the most diverse in the world.
“Although multiple species and specimens of Ichthyophis have been documented from Thailand and from Northeast India, including some recently described species, there are only a few old literature records of any caecilians from Myanmar and the caecilian fauna of that country must be considered essentially unexplored and unknown,” write the authors in the paper.
The scientists, headed by Mark Wilkinson, described the new species based on 14 specimens collected in 2000 from southern Myanmar in the Ayeyarwady Region. Although the species looks most similarly to an Indian caecilian, Ichthyophis tricolor, it differs in having more rings and a differently shaped skull. Moreover, molecular studies show the new species is more closely related to Southeast Asian species than an Indian ones, which may change how scientists view the spread of caecilians.
New sawshark (Samoray)
s may use their jagged snout to stun prey, detect electrical signals, and for defense.
A long snout with teeth jutting from the sides? Check. Catfish-like barbels dangling from its chin? Got them. Gills on the side of its body? It has those, too.
These are characteristics of a bizarre group of sharks known as sawsharks (family Pristiophoriforidae). And until recently, only seven species were recognized. However, following examination of specimens caught in the western North Pacific, researchers discovered that the number of species should be raised one more.
Currently, the new species (Pristiophorus lanae), which was described from six females and one male, is only known to inhabit waters near the Philippine Islands. The authors of the study, published in Zootaxa, write that these sawshark specimens have several distinctive morphological features that separate them from other known species.
19 new praying mantises (Hance)
A new species of praying mantis named after former Vice President Al Gore—Liturgusa algorei—for his climate activism. Photo courtesy of Svenson et al.
Despite their pacific name, praying mantises are ferocious top predators with powerful, grasping forelimbs; spiked legs; and mechanistic jaws. In fact, imagine a tiger that can rotate its head 180 degrees or a great white that blends into the waves and you’ll have a sense of why praying mantises have developed a reputation. Yet, many praying mantis species remain little known to scientists, according to a new paper in ZooKeys that identifies an astounding 19 new species from the tropical forests of Central and South America.
The new species were discovered and described by a single entomologist, Gavin Svenson with the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, who uncovered them both in the field and as museum specimens. Running to 214 pages, Svenson’s new tome triples the number of praying mantises in the genus Liturgusa in one go. Unlike many praying mantises, Liturgusa mantises, or Neotropical bark mantises, don’t practice cannibalism and are light of foot.
Svenson named one of the new species after former Vice President Al Gore — Liturgusa algorei — for his climate change activism. Another new species is named after the Kratt brothers (Martin and Chris Kratt) — Liturgusa krattorum — who host nature shows for kids. Two other species were named for Svenon’s daughters.
Amazonian tree frogs split into multiple species (Watsa)
This tree frog, photographed at the Los Amigos Biological Field Station in southeastern Peru, was originally thought to be Gunther’s tree frog, or Hypsiboas fasciatus. Today, scientists will need to review species sightings like this to identify which of the eleven new species it might be. Photo by: Patrick Campbell.
We have always been intrigued by the Amazon rainforest with its abundant species richness and untraversed expanses. Despite our extended study of its wildlife, new species such as the olinguito (Bassaricyon neblina), a bear-like carnivore hiding out in the Ecuadorian rainforest, are being identified as recently as last year. In fact, the advent of efficient DNA sequencing and genomic analysis has revolutionized how we think about species diversity. Today, scientists can examine known diversity in a different way, revealing multiple ‘cryptic’ species that have evaded discovery by being mistakenly classified as a single species based on external appearance alone.
Recently, Marcel Caminar and Ron Santiago of the Museum of Zoology at the Catholic University of Ecuador used a combination of genetics, morphology, and acoustics to examine tree frog species (family Hylidae) that were already known to science. In their report in the journal ZooKeys, they investigated a species complex that previously contained two closely related species: the convict tree frog (Hypsiboas calcaratus) and Gunther’s banded tree frog (Hypsiboas fasciatus).
Their research revealed that the morphological, or physical, similarities of the individuals within each species have been masking genetic differences between several subgroups that may actually be considered full species today. In total, Caminar and Santiago revealed eleven potentially new species within the genus Hypsiboas, a five-fold increase in species richness.
Stunning lizard discovered in Peru (Butler)
Male Potamites erythrocularis stream lizard. Photo by Alessandro Catenazzi.
A ‘new’ species of lizard has been described from the cloud forests of Peru’s Manu National Park.
Potamites erythrocularis, an aquatic lizard that lives in cold streams at an elevation of of 900-2000 meters, was discovered during herpetological studies in the Kosñipata Valley by Alessandro Catenazzi and German Chavez. It differs from other Potamites by its scale pattern. Males are distinguished by a red-orange patch which nearly encircles the eye.
The lizard was first revealed to the public in January in a paper documenting Manu’s world-record level of reptile and amphibian biodiversity, but hadn’t yet been formally described. That study documented 155 amphibian and 132 reptile species, 16 more than the previous record holder: Ecuador’s Yasuní National Park.
The cold stream-dwelling behavior of Potamites is extremely unusual among lizards. The genus is widely distributed in cloud forests around tropical South America.
Day gecko discovered in Sri Lanka (Watsa)
The male of the newest addition to the genus Cnemaspis in Sri Lanka. Photo courtesy of Vidanapathirana.
Scientists have identified a new species of day gecko that is the largest in its genus (Cnemaspis) to be found in Sri Lanka. To date, it has been observed only within the Rammalakanda Reserve in southern Sri Lanka, an area spanning just 1,700 hectares, raising questions about the viability of this population and hence the species’ long-term prospects.
The gecko belongs to the enigmatic genus of Cnemaspis, which in 2003 contained only four representative species within Sri Lanka. Since then, scientists have discovered 18 further species in the island country, but none as large in size as this most recent discovery. Known locally as the ‘Rammale day gecko‘ (Rammale pahalpalli in Tamil, and Rammale diva huna in Sinhalese), the new gecko measures around 53 millimeters from snout to vent—a small reptile to us, but a giant in comparison to other gecko species in the area.
Scientists discover new whale species (Hance)
Researchers have described a new beaked whale species. The beaked whale family, so-called for their dolphin-like beaks, are among the world’s least known mammals. This photo shows a Blainville’s beaked whale (Mesoplodon densirostris). Photo by: NOAA.
Beaked whales are incredibly elusive and rare, little-known to scientists and the public alike—although some species are three times the size of an elephant. Extreme divers, beaked whales have been recorded plunging as deep as 1,800 meters (5,900 feet) for over an hour. Few of the over 20 species are well-known by researchers, but now scientists have discovered a new beaked whale to add to the already large, and cryptic, group: the pointed beaked whale (Mesoplodon hotaula).
“[Beaked whales] are rarely seen at sea due to their elusive habits, long dive capacity and apparent low abundance for some species,” says the study’s lead author, Merel Dalebout, with the University of New South Wales. “Understandably, most people have never heard of them.”
Given this, the new species is not based on living animals, but rather a series of seven whale carcasses from stranded individuals over the last 50 years. The pointed beaked-whale was actually initially proposed in 1963 as a new species by P.E.P Deraniyagala, but two years later was lumped together with the related, gingko-toothed beaked whale (Mesoplodon ginkgodens).
“Now it turns out that Deraniyagala was right regarding the uniqueness of the whale he identified. While it is closely related to the ginkgo-toothed beaked whale, it is definitely not the same species,” says Dalebout.
New dolphin near the Amazon (Butler)
Researchers have discovered a new species of river dolphin from the Amazon region.
Writing in the journal Plos One, scientists led by Tomas Hrbek of Brazil’s Federal University of Amazonas formally describe Inia araguaiaensis, a freshwater dolphin that inhabits the Araguaia River Basin. It is the first true river dolphin discovered since 1918.
The discovery came after Hrbek and colleagues noticed that a group of river dolphins in the Araguaia was isolated from other Amazon dolphins by a series of rapids. Conducting genetic analysis, the researchers found the Araguaian boto (Inia araguaiaensis) to be distinct enough from other Amazon dolphins to be classified as a different species. The scientists estimate that the dolphin species diverged some two million years ago, corresponding to the separation of the Araguaia-Tocantins basin from the Amazon basin.
The differences between the Araguaian boto and their closest relatives, Inia geoffrensis and Inia boliviensis, extend beyond genetics. The Araguaian boto is smaller, has a different number of teeth, and has a wider skull.
Part II of II. See Part I