2011: The Year in Species Discoveries

Terry Gosliner/California Academy of Sciences
Gary Williams/California Academy of Sciences
Terry Gosliner/California Academy of Sciences
Gary Williams/California Academy of Sciences
Terry Gosliner/California Academy of Sciences
Terry Gosliner/California Academy of Sciences
Gary Williams/California Academy of Sciences

2011: The Year in Species Discoveries

Scientists found hundreds of species--ranging from the strange to the extinct--over the last 12 months.

By Andy Isaacson
Published: 12/21/2011

This was the year that a new, iron-oxide-eating bacterium was found devouring the Titanic. Scientists learned of a mushroom in Brazil that enters and then alters the brains of carpenter ants, causes them to die in the act of eating shrub leaves, and then grows out their heads--the scientists nicknamed it the "zombie-ant fungus." Paleontologists are even finding new extinct species. In New Mexico they unearthed fossils of the largest-known dinosaur ever to roam North America--a plant-eating sauropod called Alamosaurus--and another new dinosaur (PDF), with a spiny-looking face, was rediscovered in London's Natural History Museum, where it had been hiding away since 1916, the year it came back from a dig in Canada. Four new bees were identified in New York City, and 12 new frog species were located in India, including one that croaks like a meowing cat. In Southeast Asia's Mekong region, researchers counted 200 new species this year, among them a female-only lizard that clones itself. A Mexican fisherman inadvertently pulled up a rare, one-eyed cyclops shark. And researchers combing a South African mine found, living in the fluid-filled rock fractures, the deepest-known multicellular organism: a nematode worm, grazing on bacteria.

These are some of the bizarre and unexpected creatures that were entered into the annals of life as we know it this year--but there were others.

Some 1.2 million species have been named and catalogued over the past 250 years of taxonomic classification. Scientists estimate that more than 86 percent of earth's existing species remain off the books, yet we could be losing up to 27,000 species a year. Of the world's roughly 8.7 million eukaryotic species--give or take 1.3 million, according to a recently published estimate--about one-quarter, or 2.2 million, are marine. Last year, after a decade of research and more than 540 ocean expeditions, scientists from 670 institutions concluded the first-ever census of marine life--finding evidence of it nearly everywhere, including some 6,000 newly discovered species, like the Pacific Ocean's "yeti crab," which bears long, white furry claws.

Last April scientists from the California Academy of Sciences staged an unprecedented biodiversity survey in the Philippines, the very epicenter of the world's marine life. For six weeks they trawled the ocean floor and combed shallow coral reefs, discovering more than 300 species they believe are new to science. These include 50 kinds of colorful new sea slugs, a starfish that feeds exclusively on sunken driftwood, and a shrimp-eating swell shark that lives 2,000 feet under the sea. (Elsewhere this year, scientists spotted a previously unknown dogfish shark at a Taiwan market.) "Every time I go into the water in the Philippines I see something I've never seen before," said Cal Academy invertebrate zoologist Terrence Gosliner, the world's foremost expert in nudibranchs.

The amazement of such discoveries came with sobering reminders of nature's fragility on a planet taxed more than ever. "Extinction from habitat loss is the signature conservation problem of the 21st century," said Stephen Hubbell, an ecologist at the University of California Los Angeles, noting the compounding impact of climate change. "There have been five mass extinctions in the history of the earth, and we could be entering the sixth."

For scientists, the brisk rate of loss is lending urgency to the need to discover and catalog what life still remains. "We're living in a burning house," said marine biologist Rich Mooi, who co-led the California Academy of Sciences expedition. "In order for firemen to come in and make an effective rescue they need to know who's in those rooms and what rooms they're in. When we do biodiversity surveys like this we're doing nothing less than making a tally of who's out there, who needs to be paid attention to, and how can we best employ the resources we have to conserve those organisms."

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