- Scientists described a slew of new species this past year, including an electric blue tarantula, two pygmy squid, a silent frog, and some thumb-sized chameleons.
- Experts estimate less than 20% of Earth’s species have been documented by Western science.
- Although a species may be new to science, it may already be well known to local and Indigenous people and have a common name.
- Many new species of plants, fungi, and animals are assessed as Vulnerable or Critically Endangered with extinction as soon as they are found, and many species may go extinct before they are named, experts say.
Scientists named hundreds of new to science species this year, including an electric blue tarantula, two pygmy squids, a silent frog, and some thumb-sized chameleons. These newly uncovered creatures give us just a glimpse into the immense biodiversity yet to be found across the planet.
“I think most people believe that we know most species on Earth … but in the best-case scenario, we know 20% of Earth’s species,” Mario Moura, a professor at the Federal University of Paraíba in Brazil, told Mongabay in a March 2021 interview.
Experts estimate only 10-20% of Earth’s species have been documented by Western science.
This year, researchers at the California Academy of Sciences described 153 new plant, animal and fungi species. Since 2020 alone, researchers have classified 100,000 new plant and fungus species. However, at this pace, researchers say documenting all life could take centuries, and many species may go extinct before they’re even named.
More than a million plant and animal species are threatened with extinction, suggests the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). Many new species of plants, fungi, and animals are assessed as vulnerable or critically endangered with extinction as soon as they’re found.
“There is something immensely unethical and troubling about humans driving species extinct without ever even having appreciated their existence and given them consideration,” Walter Jetz, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Yale University, told Mongabay,
It’s important to note that although a species may be newly described by science, Indigenous people often know about species long before they’re “discovered” by Western science.
“Many species that are new to science are already known and used by people in the region of origin — people who have been their primary custodians and often hold unparalleled local knowledge,” writes Alexandre Antonelli, director of science at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
Here’s a look at our top new-to-science species from 2023
A new electric-blue tarantula species has been described by scientists in Thailand, making it the first known tarantula species from Thai mangroves. The spider’s vivid blue coloration is created not by pigments but by nanostructures on the tarantula’s hairs that manipulate light and produce an iridescent effect.
Researchers from Khon Kaen University and wildlife YouTuber JoCho Sippawa found these vibrant blue tarantulas in the muddy conditions of Phang Nga province’s mangrove forest. The researchers have raised concerns about the tarantulas’ mangrove habitats being cleared for oil palm cultivation.
Six newly described chameleon species reflect Tanzania’s Eastern Arc Mountains’ fragility and richness
Six new species of tiny, threatened pygmy chameleons have been discovered in Tanzania’s Eastern Arc Mountains, a biodiversity hotspot where rapid deforestation threatens endemic wildlife. The chameleons, which can fit on a thumb, reflect the exceptional yet fragile diversity of the mountains’ isolated forests that scientists are still documenting.
Agricultural expansion driven by population growth and government initiatives to increase food production continue to drive montane forest loss at an alarming rate, shrinking the habitat these new chameleon species depend on. While some forests have been upgraded to higher protection status recently, lack of enforcement and resources enable ongoing encroachment.
Conservationists say they hope flagship species like the colorful chameleons can boost the global profile of the Eastern Arc Mountains to promote tourism and secure funding for protection programs involving local communities.
Scientists have described a new-to-science snake species from Peru’s Otishi National Park and named it after the actor Harrison Ford for his conservation advocacy. The pale yellowish-brown snake with black blotches was found in high-elevation wetlands and identified using genetic techniques. Satellite data and imagery show several areas of forest loss throughout the park, which appear to have been caused by natural landslides. Still, some bear the hallmarks of human-caused clearing likely linked to coca cultivation and drug trafficking.
A growing number of researchers also argue that species should not be named after people, as such names may perpetuate a negative legacy associated with imperialism and racism.
Scientists have described a new species of bent-toed gecko from a remote cave in Timor-Leste. The new species was confirmed through DNA analysis and further examination of collected specimens and is named after the young nation’s first national park, Nino Konis Santana National Park. Timor-Leste, in Southeast Asia’s Wallacea region, has high levels of biodiversity, including numerous endemic species of birds and other animals. Continued research and exploration in Timor-Leste is expected to uncover many more new plant and animal species, possibly from the same cave where the new gecko was found.
Researchers found two new species of tiny, reddish pygmy squid in the biodiverse coral reefs and seagrass beds near the Japanese island of Okinawa. The Ryukyuan pygmy squid (Idiosepius kijimuna) and Hannan’s Pygmy Squid (Kodama jujutsu), which measure less than 12 millimeters (0.5 inches), are nocturnal and difficult to spot, but were documented through collaboration between scientists and underwater photographers. Their whimsical names connect them to Japanese folktales, matching their elusive nature and coastal forest habitats, which are threatened by climate change and human activity.
Scientists have described a new-to-science species of frog from Tanzania’s Ukaguru Mountains with a unique trait: it’s silent. The males of this species have tiny spines on their throats, which may serve as a means of species recognition for the females.
Researchers encountered the species during an expedition in search of another species, the elusive Churamiti maridadi tree toad, which has only been spotted twice in the wild and is feared to be extinct. The Ukaguru Mountains have a high degree of endemism, and describing this new species highlights the vast amount of knowledge still to be gained about this biodiversity-rich area.
A new genus and species of spider found in Tasmania has been named Venomius tomhardyi after actor Tom Hardy and his Marvel character Venom, due to the distinctive black spots on the spider’s abdomen resembling Venom’s head. The orb-weaving spider belongs to the Araneidae family and builds circular webs to catch prey, but unlike related spiders, it doesn’t have tubercles on its abdomen and creates silk shelters inside tree branches. Researchers found the spider on an expedition across multiple Australian states by researchers who aim to fully document the continent’s spider diversity to aid conservation efforts.
Researchers have described three new species of nautilus found in the Coral Sea and the South Pacific. The three species differ in genetic structure, shell size and coloration, and geographic location. Scientists generally know little about nautiluses but are working to fill in the data gaps to understand how to protect them. Nautiluses are highly threatened by the shell trade, as well as pollution and the impacts of climate change.
A new species of leaf-tailed gecko, Uroplatus garamaso, has been described from northern Madagascar. Like other geckos in its genus, U. garamaso is a master of camouflage due to skin flaps that allow it to resemble tree bark during the daytime when it presses against branches. At 8-14 centimeters (3-5.5 inches) long, it’s a relatively large gecko for Madagascar. The forest where the gecko lives face threats from logging and fires, endangering U. garamaso which, like many endemic Madagascan species, has a restricted range that makes it vulnerable to habitat loss. More geckos are still being uncovered in Madagascar’s exceptionally biodiverse ecosystems.
A new leafless ground orchid found in a lowland wet-zone forest in Sri Lanka has been named after a precious yellow sapphire, a gemstone commonly extracted from the same district. The plant grows in Walankanda, a forest frontier in the island’s intermediate zone with unique characteristics that will likely make these plants susceptible to future climate change impacts earlier than other wet-zone rainforest plants.
Tea plantations are the main driver of forest fragmentation in the area. However, an ambitious project aims to create an ecological land corridor through neglected tea estates, linking the forest where the orchid was first found with another fragmented forest patch.
A new species of frog has been described from the tropical Andes of Ecuador and named after J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of famous works of fantasy literature. Only one individual of the species was found, within the bounds of Río Negro-Sopladora National Park.
Río Negro-Sopladora was declared a protected area in 2018 and serves as a critical link in the highly diverse Sangay-Podocarpus Corridor, home to many rare and endemic plants and animals. The scientists who described the frog say research and monitoring are urgently needed to better understand this unique species and assess potential threats to its survival, such as invasive species, emerging diseases, and climate change.
Researchers have described five new species of snail-eating snakes from the upper Amazon Rainforest in Ecuador and Colombia and the Chocó-Darién forests of Panama. Three of the new species were named by actor Leonardo DiCaprio, conservationist Brian Sheth, and the NGO Nature and Culture International to raise awareness about the threats these snakes face due to mining and deforestation.
Ecuador and Colombia saw an increase in illegal gold mining along rivers and streams during the COVID-19 pandemic, which may have affected populations of these fragile snakes and has led to conflict and division within communities. Snail-eating snakes are arboreal and depend on wet environments to survive, so deforestation and mining pollution, including illegal gold mining, affect both the snakes and the snails and slugs that they rely on for food.
A group of researchers and citizen scientists have identified a new semi-slug species. The so-called “snug,” a snail whose external shell is too small to house its entire body, can be found in the lowland rainforests of northern Borneo Island. The researchers suggest there may be some half a dozen other species from the same genus waiting to be described, highlighting the rich biodiversity of this region.
Banner image: One of the six newly described chameleons from Tanzania, which are already at risk of extinction due to habitat loss, according to researchers. Image courtesy of Michele Menegon.
Liz Kimbrough is a staff writer for Mongabay and holds a Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology from Tulane University, where she studied the microbiomes of trees. View more of her reporting here.
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