11 New Animal Discoveries
Some of the many exciting new species discovered in 2013.
Purring monkeys, glue-spitting worms and vegetarian piranhas were just a few of the species discovered in 2013, and the door is open for uncovering more amazing new animals in the year ahead. There are 8.7 million species on earth (not counting bacteria), and surprisingly 86 percent of all land species and 91 percent of all ocean species have yet to be discovered by science.
“It’s really extraordinary. We know so little about the true biodiversity on our planet,” said Melanie Stiassny, curator of the American Natural History’s Department of Ichthyology, who has spent her career studying fish diversity. “A lot of people think that Darwin completed documenting the species but in fact, there has been a renaissance in the study of species discovery, in part because of the biodiversity crisis. How can we know what we are losing if we don’t know what was there? And in part because of new technologies. A lot of new tools are at our disposal.”
Higher-powered molecular and electron microscopes are helping researchers uncover an enormous microbial world that was previously too tiny to identify. Advances in underwater exploration are allowing prospectors to investigate the previously inaccessible deep ocean. New developments in genetic research are uncovering “cryptic species,” outwardly similar to other species but very different when their genetic code is analyzed.
Insects, microbes, and fish dominate the latest discoveries because they have a high degree of biodiversity and often come from environments that are largely unexplored. New mammals and birds are rare, but not impossible, as last year’s discovery of the purring monkey illustrates.
Singling out a bona fide find isn’t easy. “To be able to recognize something as new, you need to have a very good knowledge of everything related to it,” said Stiassny, “so describing species and recognizing biodiversity is a very specialized pursuit.”
Once you’ve found a new species, you have to prove it. That can take years of work identifying the characteristics that set it apart from any other creature on earth. The species is named based on the rules of the “International Code of Zoological Numenclature” and the research is peer-reviewed before anything becomes official. Here are 10 new creatures that made the cut in 2013:
1. Rinjani Scops Owl
The Rinjani Scops owl (Otus jolandae) is small and compact—about the same size as the North American screech-owl—with brown plumage, a whitish belly, and two distinctive ear tufts. It was discovered in Lombok, Indonesia by two independent ornithologists, just days apart: George Sangster of the Swedish Museum of Natural History and Ben King of the American Museum of Natural History.
The owl was the first native bird to be recorded on the remote island. “Even with the right mindset and the right equipment,” Sangster said, “you will not find any new species if you are not in the right place.”
It was named after the Gunung Rinjani, a large and active volcano on the island, because it was discovered in its foothills.
2. Legless Lizard
About the size of pencil, with a long scaly body and no limbs, this creature might look like a tiny snake, but it’s not. It is one of four new species of “legless lizard” discovered in California last year. How can you tell the difference? “If you look carefully at them, you will see that they have eyelids and they can blink, whereas snakes have fixed, open eyes,” explained Theodore Papenfuss, a co-author on the study that formally described the species in a September journal article.