Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
Each year, an international committee of taxonomists and related experts form a list of the top 10 species of the year. In 2013, the list included such species as the Lesula monkey, lightning roaches and the lyre sponge. Not to be outdone, 2014’s list includes some pretty impressive species as well.
The list is compiled annually by the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry’s (ESF) International Institute for Species Exploration (IISE). The top 10 species list is derived from all species that are discovered and/or named in the previous year – in 2013, roughly 18,000 new species of animal and plant were named. The list was released today (May 22) to coincide with the birthday of Carolus Linnaeus (May 23), an 18th century Swedish botanist who is considered the father of modern taxonomy.
This year’s includes a carnivorous mammal, a strange reptile, several tiny creatures, a brightly-colored fungus, and a large plant.
The annual list, which was established in 2008, calls attention to discoveries that are made even as many species are going extinct faster than they are being identified.
“The majority of people are unaware of the dimensions of the biodiversity crisis,” said Dr. Quentin Wheeler, founding director of the IISE and ESF president.
“The top 10 is designed to bring attention to the unsung heroes addressing the biodiversity crisis by working to complete an inventory of earth’s plants, animals and microbes. Each year a small, dedicated community of taxonomists and curators substantively improve our understanding of the diversity of life and the wondrous ways in which species have adapted for survival,” Wheeler said in a statement.
“One of the most inspiring facts about the top 10 species of 2014 is that not all of the ‘big’ species are already known or documented,” said Dr. Antonio Valdecasas, chair of the selection committee and a biologist and research zoologist with Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales in Madrid, Spain. “One species of mammal and one tree species confirm that the species waiting to be discovered are not only on the microscopic scale.”
The popular consensus among scientists is that some 10 million species are still awaiting discovery, five times the number that are already known to science. If bacteria and microbes called archaea are counted in, that number rises to 50 million.
“We have not increased our rate of species discovery and description at all since before World War II… It’s pretty much a steady state of 17,000 to 18,000 species a year. Given the technological advances in recent decades, I find that really inexcusable. We could easily be working an order of magnitude faster,” Wheeler told National Geographic.
And it doesn’t help that many species are going extinct before they can be described. Human encroachment on natural habitats, deforestation, pollution, and climate change are all forcing species biodiversity out the door.
A recent study in the journal Science forecasts that if the current extinction rates continue, Earth will reach mass extinction status – defined as the loss of 75 percent of species – within 300 years, NatGeo reports, noting that the last time that happened was 65 million years ago when the dinosaurs were wiped out.
“Some people say, ‘Well, the Earth recovered from that one and is quite diverse and pleasant today,'” said Wheeler. “And that’s true. The problem is it took tens of millions of years—and it wouldn’t have been a very nice place to live during those tens of millions of years.”
Without further ado, we bring you the top 10 species of 2014, which ESF-IISE notes were not numbered, but rather ordered alphabetically by genus.
Up first is the Olinguito, a carnivorous, tree-dwelling mammal found in the cloud forests of the Andes Mountains in Colombia and Ecuador. This small mammal – weighing about 4.5 pounds – resembles a cross between a slinky cat and wide-eyed teddy bear. It is an arboreal carnivore that belongs to the family Procyonidae, which includes the raccoon. Most important about the olinguito, is the fact that this is the first carnivorous mammal described in the Western Hemisphere in 35 years. Because it largely depends on cloud forest habitat, it is likely threatened by deforestation.
Second on the list is Kaweesak’s Dragon Tree, also known as the Mother of Dragons. It was somewhat of a surprise that this 40-foot-tall tree, native to Thailand, went so long without notice. It has beautiful sword-shaped leaves with white edges and cream-colored flowers with bright orange filaments. The tree is found in the limestone mountains of the Loei and Lop Buri Provinces of Thailand and also in nearby Burma. This tree has been given the endangered status due to the fact that there are only a small number of known specimens (2,500 +/-) and they only grow on limestone that is being extracted for the manufacture of concrete.
Up next is a small creature known as the ANDRILL anemone. This small sea creature was discovered in the most unlikely of places – under a glacier on the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica. It is not yet understood how this species withstands the extreme and harsh conditions in its habitat and it is the first species of sea anemone that reportedly lives in ice. The creature was discovered when the Antarctic Geological Drilling Program (ANDRILL) sent a remotely operated submersible under the ice shelf via drilled holes. The submersible captured images of the small critters – each less than an inch long. These anemones, which are pale yellow in coloration, burrow into the ice shelf and leave their 20-plus tentacles dangling in the frigid sea water below.
A skeleton shrimp is next on the top 10 list. This see-through crustacean was discovered in a cave on Santa Catalina, off the coast of Southern California. This shrimp, a distant relative of those that are commonly consumed by seafood lovers, is the first genus of skeleton shrimp reported in the northeast Pacific. It has an eerie, translucent appearance that makes it resemble a bony structure. Males are about an eighth of an inch long; females are smaller at less than a tenth of an inch long.
We next move on to the Orange Penicillium, a species of fungus found in Tunisia. This fungus is distinguishable by the bright orange color it displays when in colonies. The species was named as a tribute to the Dutch royal family, and more specifically to His Royal Highness the Prince of Orange. The fungus, which was isolated from soil in Tunisia, produces a sheet-like extra-cellular matrix that may function as a protective measure during times of drought.
A striking reptile makes its way into the 2014 top 10 list. Called the leaf-tailed gecko, this hard-to-spot reptile was discovered last year in the isolated rain forests of the Melville Range in Australia. The species is a master of camouflage, resembling the leaf litter or rocky debris in its natural habitat, as the creature has an extremely wide tail that makes up part of its camouflage. It has longer limbs, a more slender body and larger eyes than other species in the genus Saltaurius and its mottled coloration helps it blend in with its surroundings. Native to rain forests and rocky habitats, this species is somewhat nocturnal. It waits for prey to approach while sitting on the vertical surfaces of its habitats. Because surveys of its surroundings did not reveal the presence of any other specimens, it has been assumed that this is a very rare species.
The amoeboid protist is considered a giant in the world of single-celled organisms. Discovered in underwater caves 30 miles off the southeast coast of Spain, this one-celled giant amoeba can grow to two inches in length. This Mediterranean foram – part of a distinct group of amoeboids – gathers pieces of silica spicules (sponge fragments) from its surroundings and uses them like Lego blocks to construct a shell. While not a sponge itself, it does look like and feeds like one, extending its arms – known as pseudopods – outside its shell to feed on invertebrates that get trapped in the spiny structures. Interestingly, the location where this amoeboid was discovered is the same caves where carnivorous sponges were first discovered.
Last year, the first evidence of contamination in clean rooms where spacecraft are assembled came to light. This contamination comes in the form of clean room microbes, first discovered at a spacecraft facility in Florida and subsequently at another in French Guiana more than 2,500 miles away. These microbes are a serious problem due to the fact that we do not want to send anything into space that could potentially contaminate other planets, such as Mars, that these spacecraft visit. Frequent sterilization of clean rooms is conducted to keep microbes out, but it seems there are ones out there that are resistant to extreme dryness; wide ranges of pH, temperature and salt concentrations; and exposure to UV light and hydrogen peroxide.
[ Watch the Video: Super Microbes Discovered In Two Spacecraft Clean Rooms ]
Included in the 2014 top 10 list is a tiny species of fairyfly called the Tinkerbell fairyfly. Fairyflies got their name due to their tiny size and their delicately fringed wings. They belong to the parasitoid wasp family Mymaridae. This species gets its name from Peter Pan’s fairy sidekick Tinkerbell – not surprising since it is less than one-hundredths-of-an-inch long (250 micrometers). This new species, joining the nearly 1,400 already known species of its family, was collected by sweeping vegetation in secondary growth forest at LaSelva Biological Station in Costa Rica. Although its host is not yet known, it presumably has a life span of no more than a few days and is known for attacking the eggs of other insects.
Last, but not least, on the list is the domed land snail, which has a ghostly appearance. This terrestrial snail, which lives in complete darkness at 3,000 feet below ground in the Lukina Jama-Trojama caves of western Croatia, lacks eyes as they are not necessary in its habitat. Also, due to its habitat, the creature lacks shell pigmentation, which gives it the ghostly translucent appearance. Only a single living specimen was collected in a large cavern among rocks and a nearby stream of running water. While only one living specimen was found, many other empty shells were also discovered. As with most snails, this ghost snail is a slow-goer, moving along at just a few millimeters per week. These small snails, measuring less than one-tenth-of-inch, travel more easily in the water currents or by hitching a ride with other cave inhabitants, such as bats or crickets.
“I have been participating in the top 10 since its beginning in 2008, and I am always surprised by the constant number of species discovered in all the organic kingdoms,” Valdecasas said. “It makes selecting the species challenging and demanding, but at the same time, inspiring. We are very far from having exhausted the knowledge of the biodiversity on Earth.”
Wheeler offered three reasons why an inventory of the world’s plants and animals is critical:
- Without a baseline of what exists, humans will not know if something disappears, moves in response to climate change or invades new habitats. “As long as we remain ignorant of the vast majority of species, we unnecessarily limit our effectiveness at conservation goals.”
- Billions of years of natural selection have driven plants and animals to solve the same survival problems that humans face. “By studying the millions of ways in which organisms have met challenges, we open a great library of possibilities for meeting our own needs more sustainably.”
- Simple curiosity is a factor. “If we want to understand what it means to be human the answer is buried deep in evolutionary history. We are a modified version of our ancestors, and they of theirs … all the way back to the first species on Earth. With the loss of every species, we lose one chapter in our own story that we’ll never get back.”
Wheeler said he hopes the list draws attention to the urgent need to complete an inventory on all of the species on the planet.
“Advances in technology and communication mean that the centuries-old dream of knowing all species is within our reach. The benefits of learning our world’s species are incalculable and the single most important step we can take in preparation for an uncertain environmental future,” he explained.
In conclusion, Valdecasas conjured an image of a human getting a one-way ticket to Mars. At some point after arriving on the desolate, arid landscape the space traveler would start pining for the extremely rich level of biodiversity that only the Earth provides, as well as the sights, smells and sounds of nature.
“Nothing, nothing could ever compensate for that,” he said. “Now, think how fortunate we are to have at hand such a universe.”
Image 2 (below): The Cape Melville leaf-tailed gecko, a spectacular new species from remote northern Australia. Credit: Conrad Hoskin