Amusing Monday: Ten new species, each with unique stories to tell

An international team of taxonomists has chosen the “Top 10 New Species of 2018” from among some 18,000 new species named last year.

They range from the large — a majestic tree that is critically endangered — to the small — a microscopic single-celled organism discovered in an aquarium with no obvious connection to any known species.

They include a fish that has survived in the deepest, darkest part of the Pacific Ocean — at record depth — with credit for its discovery going to a team of scientists led by a University of Washington researcher.

The list of new species also includes a rare great ape — an orangutan that has been identified as a separate species — as well as a prehistoric marsupial lion identified from fossils found in Australia.

The 11th annual list is compiled by the International Institute for Species Exploration at the College of Environmental Science and Forestry at the State University of New York.

College President Quentin Wheeler, the founding director of the institute, said the annual list demonstrates the value of species exploration and diversity.

“I’m constantly amazed at how many new species show up and the range of things that are discovered,” he said in a news release.

“We name about 18,000 per year but we think at least 20,000 per year are going extinct,” Wheeler said. “So many of these species — if we don’t find them, name them and describe them now — will be lost forever.

“And yet they can teach us so much about the intricacies of ecosystems and the details of evolutionary history,” he added. “Each of them has found a way to survive against the odds of changing competition, climate and environmental conditions. So each can teach us something really worth knowing as we face an uncertain environmental future ourselves.”

Wheeler blames humans for the high rate of extinctions. “At this stage, it’s us,” he explained. “People are altering habitats and changing the climate. As inconvenient as it might be to adapt to climate change with our crops and relocate cities in the most extreme scenarios, what we can’t do is bring back species once they’re gone.”

The top-10 list is made public each year around May 23 to recognize the birthday of Carolus Linnaeus, an 18th century Swedish botanist who is considered the father of modern taxonomy.

Swire’s Snailfish: Deepest fish in the sea

Pseudoliparis swirei

Its appearance reveals nothing about its character, but a fish that lives in the deepest, darkest part of the ocean must be doing right. The newly named Swire’s snailfish (Pseudoliparis swirei) is about 4 inches long with a translucent, tadpole-like body with no scales — and no other fish on Earth has been found in a deeper location.

Large numbers of the new species were captured in baited traps in the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific at depths between 22,000 and 26,000 feet (between 4 and 5 miles deep). One fish was recorded on camera at 27,000 feet, but without a specimen researchers could not be confirm it as the same species.

A scientific paper describing the fish was published in November in Zootaxa, and Michelle Ma of UW News reported on the discovery.

“This is the deepest fish that’s been collected from the ocean floor, and we’re very excited to have an official name,” lead author Mackenzie Gerringer, a postdoctoral researcher at UW’s Friday Harbor Laboratories, was quoted as saying. “They don’t look very robust or strong for living in such an extreme environment, but they are extremely successful.”

Mackenzie also spoke with Craig Welch of National Geographic, who said the pressures that the fish endure are equal to the weight of 1,600 elephants.

“There are real limitations to life in these trenches,” she said. “They have evolved adaptations to that pressure to keep their enzymes functioning and membranes moving.”

P. swirei belongs to the snailfish family, Liparidae. Among the family’s more than 400 named species are fish found at all depths, from intertidal pools to the deepest reaches. It is believed that about 27,000 feet is a physiological limit, meaning that no fish can live in water any deeper.

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Tapanuli Orangutan: Endangered great ape

Pongo tapanuliensis

Orangutan // Photo: Andrew Walmsley

Genomic evidence has revealed that a small, isolated population of Sumatran orangutans is so distinct from other orangutans in the region that they should be considered a separate species. With only about 800 known individuals remaining, Pongo tapanuliensis becomes the most endangered population of great apes in the world.

In 2001, the orangutans of Sumatra and Borneo, which had been considered one species, were recognized as two: Pongo abelii and Pongo pygmaeus. Before naming the new species, an international team of researchers examined the morphometric, behavioral, and genomic evidence of the various orangutan populations. Genomic evidence shows that the new species — isolated at the southern limit of the range occupied by Sumatran orangutans — diverged from other orangutans some 3.4 million years ago, whereas the northern Sumatra and Borneo species separated about 674,000 years ago.

The importance of this finding was quickly recognized, as the estimated 800 individuals live in fragmented habitat spread out over 250,000 acres in forested hillsides with elevations ranging from 1,000 to 4,000 feet.

Size of the new species is similar to other orangutans, with female heights under 4 feet and males under 5 feet. Researchers discuss the unique characteristics of the new species and how it was identified in “The Conversation.” Meanwhile, several conservation groups continue their efforts to save the last orangutans from extinction.

Orangutans are considered great apes — although eastern and western gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos are more closely related to humans.

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Atlantic forest tree

Dinizia jueirana-facao

Brazilian tree // Photo: Gwilym P. Lewis

More than 10 years ago, the biodiversity manager at a forest reserve in Brazil sent taxonomic researchers samples from a large tree that he believed was different from other trees in the region. After much work, the tree was revealed to be a new species of the genus Dinizia, which until last year had been represented by only one species, D. excels.

The new species, Dinizia jueirana-facao, grows up to 130 feet tall and rises majestically above the surrounding canopy of semi-deciduous, riparian trees in Atlantic Forest. The new species is smaller than its closest relative and has been found only in and near to the forest reserve, Reserva Natural Vale in northern Espirito Santo, Brazil. So far, only about 25 individual trees have been found, with about half in the protected area.

Like the large parent tree, its woody fruits are impressive, reaching about 18 inches long.

More than 2,000 species of vertebrate animals live in the Atlantic Forest, including almost 200 endemic species of birds. This forest is home to more than half of the threatened animal species in Brazil. The critical habitat has been severely reduced and fragmented, leaving perhaps 15 percent of what had once been a connected ecosystem of more than 330 million acres.

Read about the discovery and the scientific description of the new tree in Kew Bulletin via Springer.

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Protist: Aquarium to enigma

Ancoracysta twista

Protist // Photo: Denis V. Tiknonenkov

Discovered on brain coral in a tropical aquarium in San Diego, a single-celled protist has challenged scientists to determine its nearest relatives. It does not fit neatly within any known group of organisms, and nobody knows where it may have come from.

Early lineage has been linked to the domain Eukaryota, the highest taxonomic rank, and this new species features a rich mitochondrial genome. Eukaryotes are organisms with cells that have their genetic material bound within a nuclear membrane. Prokaryotes, found in the domains of bacteria and archaea, lack such an organized nucleus.

Eukaryotes include single-celled protists as well as a vast array multi-celled organisms, including animals, plants and fungi.

The new species, named Ancoracysta twista, is a predatory flagellate that uses its whip-like flagella to propel itself through the water. Its harpoon-like organelles, called ancoracysts, can immobilize other protists on which it feeds.

Researchers say the unusually large number of genes in its mitochondrial genome opens a window into the early evolution of eukaryotic organisms. A search for close relatives will be an ongoing challenge following the discovery of this new species at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego.

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Amphipod: Hunchback creature

Epimeria Quasimodo

Photo: Cédric d’Udekem d’Acoz, ©Royal Belgian Institute

An amphipod, about 2 inches long, has been named Epimeria Quasimodo, after Victor Hugo’s character, Quasimodo the hunchback. Featuring a somewhat humped back, the new species is among 26 new species of amphipods of the genus Epimeria that have been identified in the Southern Ocean.

With incredible spines and vivid colors, the genus Epimeria includes both free-swimming predators and sessile filter feeders, and it has taken on an iconic status among biologists studying the creatures. The genus is abundant in the glacial waters circulating south of the Polar Front, and their crested adornments are reminiscent of mythological dragons, they say.

When a treatment of the genus was published in 2007, many researchers assumed that the species were rather completely known. But, by studying the morphology and DNA evidence, two Belgian investigators demonstrated just how little is known of these spectacular invertebrates.

See Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences

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Baffling Beetle: Camouflaged hitchhiker

Nymphister kronaueri

Hitchhiking beetle // Photo: ©C. von Beeren

A tiny beetle in Costa Rica, newly named Nymphister kronaueri, survives among ants by pretending to be a piece of the ant’s body.

At just 1.5 millimeters, the beetle goes for long travels with army ants, Eciton mexicanum, which never builds permanent nests but instead spends two or three weeks on the move as they capture prey, then lay up in one location for the next two or three weeks.

The hitchhiking beetle can move about and feed while the host colony is stationary, but it must be ready to catch a ride when the ants take off on their next trip.

The beetle’s body is the precise size, shape and color of the abdomen of a worker ant. The beetle uses its mouthparts to grab the skinny portion of the host abdomen and hang on, appearing as a second abdomen. In addition to their appearance, they use chemical signals and other adaptations to avoid becoming prey themselves, but exactly how they fool the ants remains a subject of investigation.

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Heterotrophic Flower: Magnificent moocher

Sciaphila sugimotoi

Symbiotic plant // Photo: Takaomi Sugimoto

Most plants are autotrophic, meaning they feed themselves by capturing solar energy through photosynthesis. A few, like the newly discovered S. sugimotoi, are heterotrophic, meaning they cannot produce their own food and must depend on other organisms.

This new species of plant is symbiotic with a fungus, which provides nutrition, and neither species is harmed during the process. It turns out that this new plant is part of a family, Triuridaceae, made up of individuals that all derive their nutrients from symbiotic fungi, thus they are called mycoheterotrophs.

The new plant, which features a beautiful flower, was discovered on Ishigaki Island in Japan, which has added to its acclaim, since most plants found in Japan have been well documented over a long period of time.

The delicate S. sugimotoi, which grows to just under 4 inches, appears during short flowering times in September and October, producing small blossoms. The species is considered critically endangered, as it has been identified in only two locations on the island where about 50 plants were found growing in an evergreen broadleaf forest. Like other fungal symbionts, the species depends on a stable ecosystem for survival.

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Volcanic Bacterium: Emergent with volcano

Thiolava veneris

Colonizing bacteria
Photo: Miquel Canals, U. of Barcelona, Spain

When the submarine volcano Tagoro erupted off the coast of El Hierro in the Canary Islands in 2011, it abruptly increased the water temperature, decreased the oxygen level and released massive quantities of carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide, wiping out much of the existing marine ecosystem.

Three years later, scientists found the first living colonizers in this newly deposited area, including a new species of proteobacteria that produces long, hairlike structures composed of bacterial cells within a sheath.

The bacteria formed a massive white mat extending nearly half an acre around the summit of the newly formed Tagoro volcanic cone at depths of about 430 feet. Scientists who studied the bacteria concluded that unique metabolic characteristics allow the bacteria grow under such stark conditions. Early colonies of this newly discovered bacteria could pave the way for successional development of plant and animal communities. The researchers dubbed the filamentous bacterial mat “Venus’ hair” and named the bacteria Thiolava veneris.

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Marsupial Lion: Ferocious fossil

Wakaleo schouteni

Marsupial lion // Illustration: Peter Schouten

About 25 million years ago, a marsupial lion, newly named Wakaleo schouteni, roamed Australia’s open forest habitat in northwestern Queensland.

Scientists from the University of New South Wales recovered fossils in the Riversleigh World Heritage Area in Queensland that came to be associated with a previously unknown marsupial lion.

Weighing about 50 pounds — more or less the size of a Siberian husky dog — this predator spent part of its time in trees. Its teeth suggest that it was not completely reliant on meat but was, rather, an omnivore.

Two species of marsupial lions may have been present during the later Oligocene epoch, which ended with the Miocene 23 million years ago. The other, Wakaleo pitikantensis, was slightly smaller and was identified from teeth and limb bones discovered near Lake Pitikanta in South Australia in 1961.

Evolution of the Australian creatures seemed to follow Cope’s rule — named after American paleontologist Edward Cope — that suggests an increasing body size over time, perhaps because of the ability to eat larger prey and go longer between meals as the climate grew drier and cooler and the plants underwent major changes.

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Cave Beetle: Changes in the dark

Xuedytes bellus

Cave beetle // Photo: Sunbin Huang and Mingyi Tian

A variety of beetles that become adapted to life in the permanent darkness of caves often resemble one another in a suite of characteristics: compact body; elongated, spider-like appendages; and loss of flight wings, eyes and pigmentation. A newly discovered species of beetle in China seems to have taken such changes to an extreme.

These cave-dwelling beetles provide an example of convergent evolution, as unrelated species take on similar characteristics over evolutionary time as they become better adapted to extreme conditions. The new species of ground beetle, less than half an inch long, features a dramatic elongation of its head and prothorax — the body segment immediately behind the head to which the first pair of legs attach.

Xuedytes bellus was discovered in a cave in Du’an, Guangxi Province, China, known for its large number of caves that have become home to the world’s most diverse collection of cave-dwelling ground beetles found in the subfamily Trichinae, family Carabidae. To date, more than 130 species, representing nearly 50 genera, have been described from China.

See research article in ZooKeys

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