Amusing Monday: Odd and colorful species make top-10 list for ’17

A newly named stingray that lives in freshwater has joined an omnivorous rat and a couple of leggy wormlike creatures as part of the Top-10 New Species for 2017.

Sulawesi root rat
Photo: Kevin Rowe, Museums Victoria

The top-ten list, compiled by the College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) at the State University of New York, also includes a tiny spider found in India, a katydid discovered in Malaysia and a spiny ant from Papua New Guinea. Two interesting plants also made the list.

It’s often amusing to learn how various critters are first discovered and ultimately how they are named — sometimes for fictional characters with similar characteristics.

ESF President Quentin Wheeler, who founded the International Institute for Species Exploration, said nearly 200,000 new species have been discovered since the top-10 list was started a decade ago.

“This would be nothing but good news were it not for the biodiversity crisis and the fact that we’re losing species faster than we’re discovering them,” he said. “The rate of extinction is 1,000 times faster than in prehistory. Unless we accelerate species exploration, we risk never knowing millions of species or learning the amazing and useful things they can teach us.”

Freshwater stingray
Image: Marcelo R. de Carvalho

Humans are the greatest factor in rapid extinctions, largely because of the change in ecosystems and man-made pollution, Wheeler said.

“Of all the devastating implications of climate change, none is more dangerous than accelerating species extinction,” he said. “We can engineer our way through many impacts of climate change, but only hundreds of millions of years will repopulate the planet with biodiversity.”

The institute’s international committee of taxonomists selected the Top 10 from among roughly 18,000 new species named last year. The list is released to coincide with the May 23 birthday of Carolus Linnaeus, an 18th century Swedish botanist considered the father of modern taxonomy.

Spider: magical “Harry Potter” hat

Eriovixia gryffindori

The odd shape of this spider’s body — conical with a sharp bend at the tip — appears similar to the hat first owned by the wizard Godrick Gryffindor in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series — thus the scientific name Eriovixia gryffindori.

Eriovixia gryffindori // Photo: J. N. Sumukha

This tiny spider, just a tenth of an inch long, is camouflaged to hide in dead brown leaves during the day, coming out mainly at night, according to observers. Very rare and described from a single specimen, the spider is believed to live in forests of Western Ghats in India, where evergreen and semi-evergreen vegetation is surrounded by deciduous trees.

The spider builds a vertical, orb-shaped web. No male has been found so far.

Katydid: females in pink camouflage

Eulophophyllum kirki

Searching for tarantulas and snakes in Borneo, researchers stumbled upon this colorful katydid that appears nearly identical to the pink and green leaves among which it hides.

Eulophophyllum kirki // Photo: Peter Kirk

About 1.5 inches long, the males are uniformly green while the females are pink with green accents. Even hind legs resemble tiny leaves.

Because it was found in a highly protected area of East Malaysia, the researchers were unable to obtain permits to collect a specimen, a situation that could lead to identification problems if similar species are found in the future, experts say. The new species, Eulophophyllum kirki, was named for Peter Kirk, the photographer who took the pictures.

Rat: living on a mixed diet

Gracilimus radix

In an apparent reversal of evolution, a rat found on an island in Indonesia eats both plants and animals, making this new rat unique among its carnivorous relatives living throughout the world.

Gracilimus radix
Photo: Kevin Rowe, Museums Victoria

Known to feed on roots at times, the scientific name, G. radix, uses the Latin word for root. It was given the common name “slender root rat” or “Sulawesi root rat,” since it has only been found on Sulawesi Island. The new species is closely related to the Sulawesi water rat, with both species belonging to a larger group, including shrew rats.

The root rat is described as “small and slender, with gray-brown fur, rounded ears, and a sparsely haired tail.”

Since 2012, seven new species of rodents, representing four new genera have been found on Sulawesi — and more may be discovered, according to Jake Esselstyn, curator of mammals at Louisiana State University’s Museum of Natural Science. He helped describe the new species, according to Mongabay, an environmental magazine based in Indonesia.

“There’s a lot of bio-geographic complexity at Sulawesi,” Esselstyn was quoted as saying. “So we’re not too surprised that we’re finding new things. But our team has been a bit surprised by the degree to which these animals are really novel. They are not just subtly different organisms, but really charismatically different.”

Millipede: legs keep on going

Illacme tobini

With 414 legs, a new millipede has not yet broken the record for the greatest number of legs on a single animal. The record belongs to the Siphonorhinid millipedes, which can possess up to 750 legs. But nobody is ruling out the new species for a future record, because these creatures are able to add new body segments — and new legs — throughout their lives.

Illacme tobini // Photo: Paul Marek, Virginia Tech

The new species, about an inch long, was located in Sequoia National Park in California. Its ancient lineage goes back more than 200 million years, when the Americas, Eurasia, Africa and Antarctica were all part of the same supercontinent called Pangaea.

The millipede makes its home in tiny fissures and cracks below the soil surface. Experts say the new species has many unusual features, including mouthparts that could be associated with a liquid diet, four legs modified to transfer sperm to females, silk-secreting hairs, and paired nozzles for secreting some kind of defense chemical on each of its 100-plus segments.

Ant: spiny soldiers on the march

Pheidole drogon

Reminding researchers of a dragon, a new spiny-backed species of ant, Pheidole drogon, has been named for Drogon, the black dragon commanded by Daenerys Targaryen in the epic fantasy “Game of Thrones.”

Pheidole drogon // Photo: Masako Ogasawara

Pheidole drogon is one of two new species of spiny ants found in Papua New Guinea.

Large back spines were long assumed to be a defense mechanism, but images from a scanning x-ray microscope suggest that some spines may serve as a location for muscle attachment. Soldier ants of the new species have exceptionally large heads and mandibles to crush seeds. Large heads require large muscles and places to anchor them, such as spines. Not all spines have muscles attached, however, and minor worker ants with smaller heads also have these spines, so the mystery is not entirely solved.

Stingray: “king” of Brazilian river

Potamotrygon rex

The fact that a colorful 45-pound stingray has never been identified as a unique species demonstrates how much might be discovered in the further exploration of tropical rivers.

Potamotrygon rex
Image: Marcelo R. de Carvalho

The species Potamotrygon rex was first discovered more than 20 years ago in the Tocantins River in Brazil, but researchers lacked specimens to identify the ray as a separate species. Since then, they have filled in the anatomical blanks for this large ray, which can grow to about 43 inches long and 45 pounds, earning the title of “king.”

The coloration — black or brown with numerous yellow to orange irregular spots — is considered unique. Several other stingray discoveries have been assembled into a large species group called the “black stingrays,” including several recently identified as unique species endemic to the Tocantins River.

Centipede: a swimmer and diver

Scolopendra cataracta

A newly identified centipede found in Laos, Thailand and Vietnam is the first centipede ever observed to plunge into the water and run along the bottom much as it does on dry land.

Scolopendra cataracta
Photo: Siriwut, Edgecombe and Panha

One researcher found a centipede under a rock near the bank of a stream. The creature ran to the stream, swam to the bottom and hid under a submerged rock. Adept at swimming and diving, the new species name S. cataracta is Latin for waterfall.

Researchers have expressed concern about the population status of the new species, because the habitat is being destroyed by activities along the banks of streams where the centipede is found.

Bush Tomato: New species “bleeds” when cut

Solanum ossicruentum

An Australian shrub that grows into a 6-foot-tall woody plant turns out to be a member of the tomato family. The fruit is a berry less than an inch across. Mature fruits change from light green to dark green to brown, becoming leathery and bone-hard.

Solanum ossicruentum
Photo: Christopher T. Martine

About 150 seventh-grade life-science students in Pennsylvania named the new species after seeing that the fruit stains blood-red before maturing into their dry, bony state. Their choice of name combines the Latin “ossi” for bony and “cruentum” for bloody.

Researchers believe that the flowers are pollinated by bees. The spiny fruits can stick to the fur of animals for wider distribution. S. ossicruentum is a new species of bleeding tomato, which has been generally known for about 50 years and was once erroneously considered a variation of the related species S. dioicum.

Orchid: rare devil plant

Telipogon diabolicus

The fusion of male and female parts in this rare species of orchid creates a striking resemblance to a devil’s head, thus the name T. diabolicus, Latin for devil-like.

Telipogon diabolicus // Photo: M. Kolanowska

Found only so far in southern Columbia, the orchid is critically endangered because the one known site where it was found is threatened by the reconstruction of a road. The plant is an epiphyte, meaning that it grows harmlessly on another plant.

About 3,600 species of orchids can be found in Columbia, where researchers say hundreds of new species are waiting for discovery.

Marine worm: looks like fried pastry/

Xenoturbella churro
Some 5,600 feet deep in the Gulf of California where deep-sea cold seeps release methane gas, a new species of marine worm was discovered. The 4-inch creature looked enough like a churro (Spanish/Mexican pastry) that it was dubbed Xenoturbella churro.

Xenoturbella churro
Photo: © Greg Rouse

The Xenoturbella genus now contains a half dozen species, which are representative of primitive wormlike animals that are among the first species to show bilateral symmetry, meaning that one side is nearly a mirror image of the other.

This worm, orange-pink in color with deep longitudinal furrows, is believed to feed upon clams and snails. It has a mouth but no anus.

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