The new species of pig-footed bandicoot, Chaeropus yirratji, came in two different colour morphs

© Peter Schouten

SCIENCE NEWS

Museum scientists described 412 new species this year

Over the course of 2019, scientists in the Museum have been busy describing more than 400 new species - from beetles smaller than a full stop to the oldest known stegosaur.

With the biodiversity crisis in full swing and habitats coming under increasing pressure, it has never been more important to document life on Earth.

In total, Museum scientists - including researchers, curators, and scientific associates - have named 412 new species. They include wasps, lichen, marsupials, snakes, amoeba and meteorites.

The incredible work highlights just how much is still unknown about the natural world, and what we are losing as the biodiversity crisis continues to bite

The Museum's Executive Director of Science, Tim Littlewood, says, 'Species discovery is always exciting and shows just how much there is still to understand about our planet. Learning how evolution has yielded new species able to live in earth’s diverse habitats is awe inspiring.

'Sadly, much of that adaptation and biological diversity is now severely threatened and we are losing species faster than we can discover them. We are losing our understanding of the natural world, breaking our own connection with it and the connections that underpin nature's stability. Greater awareness of what we’re losing and what can yet be found will hopefully inspire action towards a planet that thrives with our help.'

This new species of plant from Brazil, Solanum medusae, is already thought to be endangered

© Y.F. Gouvêa

Studying the world under one roof

This year has seen the description of seven new plants and seven new lichen. One of these, Solanum medusae, is found near cities in southern Brazil. It is already thought to be endangered as expanding development and agriculture threaten its limited distribution.   

The work being carried out at the Museum has also highlighted the vastly understudied Indian subcontinent. This year has seen the naming of eight lizards, five snakes, four fish and an amphibian native to India.

Many of these can be found in the Western Ghats, a region in southern India. Despite already being known as one of the greatest biodiversity hotspots, it is still revealing new species. Meanwhile, the striking red snake Trimeresurus arunachalensis from the country's north eastern province was the first new species of pit viper described from India in the last 70 years.

The first known species of subterranean snakehead has been named Aenigmachanna gollum, after the character Gollum from the Lord of the Rings

© Britz et al. 2019

Some of the new discoveries are already extinct, emphasising the persistent impact that humans have been having on wildlife.

Researchers identified the pig-footed bandicoot Chaeropus yirratji, an unusual marsupial that was extinct by the 1950s following the earlier arrival of Europeans in Australia, who changed its habitat.

The arrival of people on the island of Mauritius is also thought to be responsible for the demise of the newly described flightless rail Dryolimnas chekei. This time, it was the cats that humans unleashed onto the island which are thought to have delivered the fatal blow.

Never too small to make a difference

Invertebrates account for 95% of all described animals, so it is hardly surprising that the number of newly described species has been dominated by this group, with 350 new species representing 16 major families.  

Scouring the bottom of the deep oceans has revealed an astonishingly rich biodiversity, especially in a region of the Pacific Ocean that is already targeted for deep-sea mining.

Despite the dark, cold, and paucity of food, the seafloor of the Pacific Ocean is incredibly biodiverse, including these worms Travisia zieglerae

© Wiklund et al. 2019

In a single paper, Museum scientists described 12 new species of polychaete worms, such as this Oligobregma brasierae, although the true number of new species at the depths is still not known

© Wiklund et al. 2019

This year, researcher Dr Adrian Glover and his colleagues have named 12 new species of polychaete worms from the sediments of the vast Clarion-Clipperton Zone. This area, some six million square kilometres in size and up to five kilometres deep, has attracted a vast amount of interest from the mining industry because of its extensive rare-earth minerals such as cobalt and nickel.

'It's a little bit surprising that this work hasn't taken place already, particularly in an environment that is already quite well sampled,' explains Adrian. 'We really want to be able to describe these species in order to understand these environments. You can't begin to interpret an ecosystem without first knowing the components of it.'

Back on land, other species described this year include eight wasps, five centipedes, four aphids, 13 snails and 34 moths and butterflies.  

Researchers have described a total of 33 new species of moths, including Yponomeuta horologaYponomeuta onyxellaYponomeuta oromiensis and Yponomeuta octocentra from eastern Africa

© David J. L Agassiz

By far the largest group of newly described species this year are the coleoptera, or beetles.

Museum researchers have totted up 171 new species of beetles from as far afield as Japan, Malaysia, Kenya and Venezuela.

Many of these new beetle species were described by Michael Darby, a Scientific Associate at the Museum. He works on an often-overlooked family of beetles known as the Ptiliidae, some of the smallest known free-living creatures.     

Using high-powered microscopes, Michael observes and photographs these tiny insects in soil samples collected over past decades. One of these samples included the newly described Nelloptodes gretae, which is thought to be the first new species to have been named after the teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg.

Nelloptodes gretae is the first species to be named after the Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg

© Michael Darby

'I suspect that this could very well be the first time a species has been named after Greta,' says Michael. 'I'm really a great fan of Greta as she is a great advocate for saving the planet and she is amazing at doing it, so I thought that this was a good opportunity to recognise that.

'I'd also like to stress that I've not named this species after Greta because it is small - it's just that this is the group that I work on.'

Back from the dead

The fossil echinoderm Rhenopyrgus viviani, had a somewhat unusual appearance

It's not just living species that scientists have been documenting - 71 new species of fossil creatures were described too.

One of the more unusual new fossil species was Rhenopyrgus viviani.

This ancient invertebrate once stood to attention on the seafloor during the Silurian Period, 435 million years ago. Anchored in place on the muddy bottom by a bulbous, sac-like structure at the base of the stem, it would have gently swayed in the current, feeding from its head.

Dr Tim Ewin, who led the research describing this ancient invertebrate, says, 'Rather than living in mud burrows, we now believe these creatures protruded from the sea floor, displaying a degree of flexibility.

'This allowed them to place their mouth higher up into the water column to feed. It is remarkable how new fossil evidence can alter our perceptions of ancient life.'

This year's hoard includes two new species of dinosaurs. The first, Ngwevu intloko, lived in southern Africa at the start of the Jurassic Period and was originally thought to be an entirely different species.

The second new dinosaur is a new species of stegosaur, found in the mountains of Morocco, and the first stegosaur known from northern Africa.

Dr Susannah Maidment, a Museum dinosaur expert, led the study describing Adratiklit boulahfa

'The discovery of A. boulahfa is particularly exciting as we have dated it to the Middle Jurassic,' explains Susie.

'Most known stegosaurs date from later in the Jurassic Period, making this the oldest definite stegosaur described and helping to increase our understanding of the evolution of this group of dinosaurs.'

These have been accompanied by over a dozen species of moss animals (or bryozoans), 18 new brachiopods, over half a dozen new trilobites from Siberia, a shark named after Museum researcher Charlie Underwood and a new species of fossil amoeba that is helping scientists understand how plants first colonised the land some 400 million years ago. 

The new species of sauropodomorph dinosaur Ngwevu intloko has been in a South African collection for three decades 

© Jonah Choiniere

Rock on

Just like with animals and plants, minerals and meteorites are also designated as species.

This year, the Museum's Earth Sciences division has worked on describing a total of nine new species of minerals and nine newly classified meteorites.

These minerals have come from all around the world, including California, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Russia. With only around 100 new minerals described every year, they mark a significant contribution to our understanding of the planet's geology.

One of these new minerals, Tsikourasite, was found in an abandoned mine in Greece, while Nickeltyrrellite was identified from El Dragón mine in Potosí, Bolivia - an area that has been mined since the time of the Incan Empire.

The importance of these discoveries could come into play when researchers fully assess the new minerals' chemistries and structures, which could have as yet unknown uses in the material science world.

In addition to the new minerals, scientists have also classified nine new meteorites this year. One of these, an eucrite that has been officially designated Northwest Africa 12773, originated in the crust of an asteroid that once experienced widespread melting which separated it into the core, mantle and crust.

Discover more about scientific discoveries at the Museum.