Tuesday 21 May
Newly discovered species
Discovered in a popular diving site off Ambon Island, Indonesia, in January 2008, and first described as a new species in 2009, the psychedelic frog fish has not been seen since June 2008.
The psychedelic frogfish is the only known fish to ‘hop’ rather than swim, pushing off the sea floor using its leg-like fins and expelling water from its gills to propel itself forwards.
Popular newly discovered species:
Newly discovered species fact file
- What is a newly discovered species?
- Who looks for new species?
- How are new species discovered?
- Why is it important to find new species?
- Examples of newly discovered species
- Find out more
What is a newly discovered species?
About 8.7 million plants, animals, fungi and single-celled organisms are thought to exist on Earth, although estimates for this figure range from 3 million to 100 million (1). Around 1.7 million species have already been classified, but this leaves the vast majority of life on Earth undescribed or undiscovered (2). Most of those species yet to be discovered are likely to be tiny, such as bacteria and insects, and inhabit poorly explored areas such as the deep ocean and soil (1) (2). However, larger animals, such as rodents, snakes, salamanders, and even primates, are still being found (2) (3). Between 1999 and 2010, a staggering 615 new species were discovered on the island of Madagascar alone, including 69 amphibians, 61 reptiles and 41 mammals (4).
A newly discovered species may be a species that is completely new to science, or one which has previously been described but is subsequently found to be made up of two or more separate species (5). To be certain that a discovery is an entirely new species, scientists collect a specimen and compare its characteristics to those of existing species to determine whether or not the specimen is sufficiently different from any other species already described. Extensive review and analysis through checking scientific literature and consulting other experts is also needed before a species can confidently be assigned a scientific name (2).
Morphological, behavioural and genetic characteristics are used to identify a species. Scientists analyse key morphological features, for example the shape of the bones or the reproductive organs. Sound or video recordings of a species in the wild may also be used to document behavioural traits, for example specific vocalisations or courtship displays (2).
The analysis of molecular and genetic characteristics, such as chromosome shape or the sequence of a particular segment of DNA, is also an important tool in discovering new species. Genetic barcoding is a process whereby scientists compare a key fragment of DNA from a specimen against the DNA of thousands of other species, and this technique is becoming a vital tool in identifying both new and existing species (2).
Once an organism is confirmed as a new and unique species, it has to be formally described in a recognised scientific publication and assigned a scientific name (2).
Who looks for new species?
Discovering new species involves collaboration between scientists, natural history museums, government and non-government organisations, and many other institutions (2).
Naming a species new to science requires the expertise of scientists specialising in specific taxonomic groups, such as birds, mammals or insects. Experts in taxonomy are able to confirm a species as unique, but unfortunately many taxonomic groups lack expert scientists, and this is slowing the discovery and naming of new species (2).
Expeditions involving teams of scientists aim to uncover and record the wildlife present in given regions. These missions often target countries with relatively unexplored and remote areas such as humid tropical mountains and limestone caves (2).
- The Search for Lost Frogs
Launched in 2010, this campaign saw 126 researchers working in 21 countries documenting species of frog not seen in over a decade. As well as rediscovering a number of species presumed extinct, these expeditions found several potentially new species, including a beaked toad (Rhinella sp. nov.) from Colombia (6).
- Foja Mountain Expedition
In 2005, Conservation International’s Rapid Assessment Program (RAP) survey in the Foja Mountains of Papua province, Indonesia, led to a number of exciting new discoveries, including 20 new frog species and 4 new butterfly species. This month-long expedition was carried out by local and international scientists and students, with the help of local residents (7).
- Tara Expedition
In addition to seeking out larger species, scientists are exploring the micro world in search of new discoveries. In an effort involving 126 scientists from 21 different laboratories, a 2.5-year expedition to travel the world’s oceans to study plankton biodiversity was completed in 2012. More than one million new species were discovered, although it may take up to ten years to analyse and formally describe all the species found (8) (9).
How are new species discovered?
In the field, scientists lead expeditions to some of the most remote corners of Earth, working deep in the world’s mountains, savannas, rainforests, rivers and oceans to discover new species. Many species are elusive and difficult to get to, and so scientists have to extensively search likely habitats (2).
In order to collect a specimen, traps, such as pitfall traps on the forest floor, may be used. Remote camera traps are used to document shy and elusive species such as rodents. Canopy fogging, where a tree canopy is fumigated with a chemical compound that knocks out all invertebrates, enables entomologists to survey many groups of organisms at once (2).
Sound can be an important tool in pinpointing potentially new species. Using special software, scientists are able to analyse sounds recorded in a specific habitat, and identify vocalisations that are different to all known animal songs and calls (2).
Many new species are discovered in the field, but many more are discovered in museum and herbaria collections (10). Around three billion specimens are held in collections around the world, and these include some unique species waiting to be identified. The Natural History Museum in London has launched a mission to map 10 million species in 50 years by using expertise from a wide range of fields, sharing worldwide collections, raising public awareness and using new technology (11).
Why is it important to find new species?
Some of the most threatened species are well documented and help drive interest in conservation. Many undiscovered species may have already gone extinct before being identified. Giving a species a name is the first step towards protecting it from extinction, as once it is identified, efforts to monitor and conserve the species can be put in place (2).
Understanding the breadth of biodiversity will help fill in evolutionary gaps and start to explain the life histories of species on Earth. Each organism fills a niche position within an ecosystem, and performs services such as flowering plant pollination, nutrient recycling and carbon absorption (2). Understanding threatened ecosystems and the species they contain will enable more comprehensive conservation strategies to be implemented (12).
There is also an economic benefit to discovering new species, as each new organism may prove a valuable source of new medicines or food crops, or inspire new technology (2).
Examples of newly discovered species
- Psychedelic frog fish (Histiophryne psychedelica)
Discovered in a popular diving site off Ambon Island, Indonesia, in January 2008, the psychedelic frog fish has not been seen since June 2008. Exhibiting a number of unique behaviours, including its hunting methods, this unusual fish was described as a new species in 2009 (13).
- Night-flowering orchid (Bulbophyllum nocturnum)
First described as recently at 2011, the night-flowering orchid has the distinction of being the only orchid species to open its flowers at night and close them during the day. This newly discovered species, which grows on trees or other plants, is known only from the island of New Britain, in Papua New Guinea (14) (15).
- Leaf chameleon (Brookesia micra)
Described in 2012, this leaf chameleon is one of the world’s smallest lizards, reaching a maximum length of just 29 millimetres. Found on a remote limestone islet, this species was discovered by scientists working at night using torches to detect roosting chameleons in the vegetation. Genetic analysis confirmed that this species was new to science (16).
- Kipunji (Rungwecebus kipunji)
The kipunji was discovered in Tanzania in 2003 and 2004 by two independent research teams. This remarkable find represented Africa’s first new monkey discovery in 20 years (17) (18). One of the features that established this monkey as a new species is its unique and distinctive loud, low-pitched ‘honk-bark’ call (19). The kipunji was initially assumed to be a mangabey, but genetic tests revealed this species to belong to an entirely new genus of primate (17).
- David Bowie spider (Heteropoda davidbowie)
Described in 2008 (20), the oddly named David Bowie spider is found in western Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Sumatra. Its red-brown body is patterned with dark lines and patches, and it is covered in distinctive bright orange hairs (21).
Find out more
Find out more about efforts to locate new and recently discovered species:
- Conservation International: http://www.conservation.org/how/field_work/discoveries
- WWF: http://www.wwf.org.uk/what_we_do/astonish_me/new_species/
- International Institute for Species Exploration: http://species.asu.edu/
- referring to the visible or measurable characteristics of an organism.
- a thread of DNA protein that occurs in the nucleus of a cell.
- a category used in taxonomy, which is below ‘family’ and above ‘species’. A genus tends to contain species that have characteristics in common. The genus forms the first part of a ‘binomial’ Latin species name; the second part is the specific name.
- aquatic organisms, usually tiny, that drift passively with water movements; includes phytoplankton (plants), zooplankton (animals), or other organisms such as bacteria.
- the science of classifying organisms, grouping together animals which share common features and are thought to have a common ancestor.
- relating to taxonomy, the science of classifying organisms, grouping together animals which share common features and are thought to have a common ancestor.
- Mora C., Tittensor, D.P., Adl, S., Simpson, A.G.B., and Worm, B. (2011) How many species are there on Earth and in the ocean? PLoS Biology, 9(8): e1001127
- Conservation International - Expeditions and Discovery (December, 2012)
- Smithsonian - Meet the New Species (December, 2012)
- Thompson, C. (2011) Treasure Island: New biodiversity on Madagascar (1999 – 2010). WWF Madagascar and West Indian Ocean Programme Office, Madagascar. Available at:
- WWF - New Species (December, 2012)
- Conservation International - The Search for Lost Frogs (December, 2012)
- Conservation International - Mysterious Bird of Paradise: Lost and Found (December, 2012)
- BBC Nature - Marine Microworlds: The Private Life of Plankton (December, 2012)
- Tara Expeditions (December, 2012)
- Fontaine, B., Perrard, A. and Bouchet, P. (2012) 21 years of shelf life between discovery and description of new species. Current Biology, 22(22): 943-944.
- Natural History Museum - Mission to map 10 million species in 50 years (December, 2012)
- Zoological Society of London (ZSL) - New Discoveries (December, 2012)
- New Scientist - Bizarre animals that are new to science
- Schuiteman, A., Vermeulen, J.J., de Vogel, E. and Vogel, A. (2011) Nocturne for an unknown pollinator: first description of a night-flowering orchid (Bulbophyllum nocturnum). Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, 167: 344-350.
- Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew - Bulbophyllum nocturnum (January, 2013)
- Glaw, F., Köhler, J., Townsend, T.M., and Vences, M. (2012) Rivaling the world's smallest reptiles: Discovery of miniaturized and microendemic new species of leaf chameleons (Brookesia) from Northern Madagascar. PLoS ONE, 7(2): e31314.
- Wildlife Conservation Society - Kipunji (December, 2012)
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