May 24, 2011

World’s Top 10 Newly-discovered Species Announced

A glow-in-the-dark fungus, a jumping cockroach, a rust-consuming bacterium found on the RMS Titanic, and a leech with massive teeth are among the world's top 10 species discovered during the past year, according to the International Institute for Species Exploration at Arizona State University and an international committee of taxonomists.

The new species were discovered in the United States, Brazil, Madagascar, South Africa, Peru, the Philippines, West Africa, the Mascarene Islands, the Gulf of Mexico and the North Atlantic Ocean.

The Institute's May 23 announcement coincided with the anniversary of the birth of Carolus Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist responsible for the modern system of plant and animal names and classifications.

Other species on the list include a batfish that is flat as a pancake and appears to hop in the water, a six-foot long fruit-eating lizard, and a duiker first encountered at a bushmeat market in Africa.  Rounding out the list are a cricket that pollinates a rare orchid, a mushroom that fruits underwater, and an orb-weaving spider named for Darwin that builds webs large enough to span rivers and lakes.

Among one of the most interesting new species is a leech less than 2 inches in length but with a single jaw and gigantic teeth, earning it the name Tyrannobdella rex, which means "tyrant leech king." Discovered in Peru, the leech was found attached to the nasal mucous membrane of a human. 

Scientists say there are 600 to 700 species of described leeches, although there could be as many as 10,000 more throughout the world.

The iron-oxide consuming bacterium, named Halomonas titanicae, was discovered on a rusticle from the RMS Titanic by a team of scientists from Dalhousie University in Canada and the University of Sevilla in Spain.  The passenger steamship struck a massive iceberg in 1912 and sank deep in the Atlantic Ocean, where it has been deteriorating. Studies show that the bacterium sticks to steel surfaces, creating knob-like mounds of corrosion products. Researchers believe this bacterium could be useful in the disposal of old ships and oil rigs that lie deep in the ocean.

In the fish category is a pancake batfish that lives in waters either partially or fully encompassed by the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  Named Halieutichthys intermedius, this bottom-dwelling species seems to hop on its thick, arm-like fins as it moves awkwardly in the water, resembling a walking bat.

"If we are still finding new species of fishes in the Gulf, imagine how much diversity, especially microdiversity, is out there that we do not know about," said John Sparks, curator of ichthyology at the American Museum of Natural History, one of the scientists who reported the discovery.

Also on the list is a luminescent fungus collected in São Paulo, Brazil, found on sticks in an Atlantic forest habitat. The tiny mushrooms, less than 8 millimeters in diameter with caps smaller than 2 centimeters across, have gel-coated stems that glow constantly, emitting a bright, yellowish-green light. San Francisco State University biology professor Dennis Desjardin and his colleagues made the discovery, and named the new species Mycena luxaeterna, meaning eternal light, after a movement in Mozart's "Requiem."  Desjardin, who has discovered more than 200 new fungi species, noted that of the estimated 1.5 million species of fungi on Earth, only 71 species are known to be bioluminescent.

The Silvermine Nature Reserve, part of Table Mountain National Park in South Africa, is home to another character on this year's top 10 list: a new species of cockroach that exhibits unusual morphology with legs that are highly modified for jumping. Named Saltoblattella montistabularis, or "jumping small cockroach", this creature has a jumping ability on par with grasshoppers.   Prior to its discovery, jumping cockroaches were only known from the Late Jurassic period. In addition to the leg modifications, Saltoblattella montistabularis has hemispherical shaped eyes, rather than kidney shaped eyes, which protrude from the sides of the head.  Its antennae have an additional fixation point to help stabilize it during jumping.

At 6 feet 6 inches in length, a frugivorous (fruit-eating) monitor lizard found in the Northern Sierra Madre Forest on Luzon Island in the Philippines is the longest species to make this year's top 10 list. Weighing only 22 pounds, this species is brightly colored with stripes of gold flecks. Its scaly body and legs are a blue-black mottled with pale yellow-green dots and its tail is marked in alternating segments of black and green. Named Varanus bitatawa, this lizard spends most of its time in trees and has become a flagship species for conservation in the Philippines.

A new duiker (antelope) from West Africa was first encountered at a bushmeat market, a surprising find, according to the scientists who reported the new species in Zootaxa.

"The discovery of a new species from a well-studied group of animals in the context of bushmeat exploitation is a sobering reminder of the mammalian species that remain to be described, even within those that are being exploited on a daily basis for food or ritual activities," wrote Marc Colyn from the University of Rennes, France, and his co-authors.

The species is named Philantomba walteri or "Walter's Duiker" for the late Walter N. Verheyen, in honor of his work on African mammals. Verheyen reportedly collected the first specimen at Badou, Togo, in 1968.

Glomeremus orchidophilus "“ a raspy cricket "“ made the list for its distinction of being the only pollinator of the rare and endangered orchid Angraecum cadetii on R©union in the Mascarene Archipelago in the Indian Ocean. The scientists who made the discovery wrote that this species, which belongs to a subfamily of crickets that make a raspy sound, represents the first supported case of regular pollination by an insect from the order Orthoptera in extant flowering plants.

Scientists found a species of gilled mushroom in the northwestern United States submerged in the clear, cold, flowing waters of the upper Rogue River in Oregon. What makes Psathyrella aquatica unique, and a member of the top 10 list, is that it was observed for over 11 weeks, fruiting underwater.

Rounding out the list is an orb-weaving spider from Madagascar named for Charles Darwin "“ Caerostris darwini. The webs of Darwin's Bark Spider have been found spanning rivers, streams and lakes, and in one instance, a web stretched 82 feet across a Madagascar river with at least 30 insects trapped in it.

However, length of the web isn't the only distinction of this species. The silk spun by these spiders is more than two times stronger than any other known spider silk and reportedly 10 times stronger than a similarly sized piece of Kevlar.

"At the same time that astronomers search for Earth-like planets in visible space, taxonomists are busily exploring the life forms of the most Earth-like planet of all, our own," said Quentin Wheeler, an entomologist who directs the International Institute for Species Exploration at Arizona State University.

"We can only realistically aspire to sustainable biodiversity if we first learn what species exist to begin with. Our best guess is that all species discovered since 1758 represent less than 20 percent of the kinds of plants and animals inhabiting planet Earth. A reasonable estimate is that 10 million species remain to be described, named, and classified before the diversity and complexity of the biosphere is understood," he said.

To help draw attention in a fun-filled way to biodiversity, the field of taxonomy, and the importance of natural history museums and botanical gardens, an international committee of taxon experts make the selection of the top 10 new species from the thousands described in the previous calendar year, said Wheeler.

"Charting the species of the world and their unique attributes are essential parts of understanding the history of life," he said.

"It is in our own self-interest as we face the challenges of living on a rapidly changing planet that we understand the origin and 3.8 billion year history of evolution."

Wheeler has advocated a new generation of cyber-tools and resources that will accelerate the rate at which humans are able to discover and describe species.

"Most people do not realize just how incomplete our knowledge of Earth's species is or the steady rate at which taxonomists are exploring that diversity. We are surrounded by such an exuberance of species diversity that we too often take it for granted," he said.

ASU's International Institute for Species Exploration issues the list of the top 10 new species each year as part of its public awareness campaign to bring attention to biodiversity and the field of taxonomy.

An international committee of experts selected the top 10 new species for this year's list. Nominations were invited through the institute's website, and also generated by institute staff and committee members.

"Committee members had complete freedom in making their choices and developing their own criteria, from unique attributes or surprising facts about the species to peculiar names," Wheeler said.

"Each of these amazing species discoveries tells a story about our planet; they are pieces of the puzzle that help us to understand how all of the components of life on Earth work together," said committee chairwoman Mary Liz Jameson, an associate professor at Wichita State University.

"I think that the top 10 species helps to bring attention to the pieces of the puzzle that are still waiting to be discovered "“ whether it's in your own backyard, a health clinic in Peru, in the deep ocean, or a market in West Africa. Biodiversity science is all about exploration and discovery "“ cool stuff."


Image Caption: An image of the Louisiana Pancake Batfish (Halieutichthys intermedius) taken by one of its discoverers, Prosanta Chakrabarty.


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