Armoured 'slug' among 503 new species described by Museum scientists in 2020
Despite an uncertain year, Museum scientists have described 503 species new to science.
As the climate crisis continues to unfold, never has it been more important to document the life with which we share our planet.
This year's haul has included species from almost all kingdoms of life, ranging from lichen, wasps and barnacles to minerals, miniature tarantulas and a monkey.
This year has seen much activity at the Museum slow down and some of it come to a halt, as the Museum closed its doors to the public for the longest time in its 139-year history since the Second World War.
But through all this, researchers and scientists have been continuing their crucial work when and where they can. While field work and international visits were cancelled, many managed to carry on with their research either at home or in the much quieter collections.
Over the last 12 months, many have continued working and publishing. Museum scientists - including researchers, curators and scientific associates - managed to describe 503 new species. These include giant wombat-like marsupial, tiny copepods, a plethora of beetles, a praying mantis and an emerald-green moth.
'Once again, an end of year tally of new species has revealed a remarkable diversity of life forms and minerals hitherto undescribed,' explains Dr Tim Littlewood, Executive Director of Science at the Museum. 'The Museum's collection of specimens provide a resource within which to find new species as well as a reference set to recognise specimens and species as new.
'Revealing new and undescribed species not only sustains our awe of the natural world, it further reveals what we stand to lose and helps estimate the diversity we may lose even before it's discovered. Our understanding of the natural world's diversity is negligible and yet we depend on its systems, interconnectedness and complexity for food, water, climate resilience and the air we breathe.
'In a year when the global mass of biodiversity is being outweighed by human-made mass it feels like a race to document what we are losing. 503 newly discovered species reminds us we represent a single, inquisitive, and immensely powerful species with the fate of many others in our hands.'
A monkey on a mountain
The highlight this year was a new species of monkey found living on the side of an extinct volcano in Myanmar. It was identified using skins and bones of the primate which had been in the Museum's collection for over 100 years.
The new monkey, now called the Popa langur (Trachypithecus popa) after the mountain on which it is found, is already considered to be critically endangered with only 200-260 individuals left in the wild.
'We hope that the naming of the species will help in its conservation,' says Roberto Portela Miguez, the Senior Curator in Charge of Mammals at the Museum who helped describe the new species.
'The hope is that by giving this species the scientific status and notoriety it merits, there will be even more concerted efforts in protecting this area and the few other remaining populations.'
Over the past 12 months researchers have described a total of three plants, three red seaweeds, ten ciliates, four diatoms and a lichen.
One of these species, Corallina chamberlainiae, is a beautifully delicate looking red seaweed that is found in the cold south Atlantic waters off some of the planet's most remote islands including the Falkland Islands and Tristan da Cunha, revealing there is still connectivity between these places despite the vast distances involved.
It has been another good year for the reptiles and amphibians, with a crested lizard from Borneo, two new species of frog and an impressive nine new snakes, including a viper.
Researchers have described a new species of bright green pit viper (Trimeresurus davidi). Only found in the Nicobar Archipelago in the Indian Ocean, it is already thought to be endangered.
A new species of natricine snake Smithophis arunachalensis has been described from India, showing a very distinctive yellow and black zig-zag pattern along its side.
One particularly weird new species is a lungless worm salamander (Oedipina ecuatoriana) which is known only from a single specimen held by the Museum and collected over a hundred years ago. These curious amphibians breathe through their skin and live by burrowing through the rainforest soil. Along with a second new worm salamander, this discovery has pushed the known distribution of these animals further south into South America than was previously known.
Along with the popar langur, these discoveries go to show the vital role that natural history collections around the world continue to play in describing new species and the hidden diversity that is contained within the collections.
The Museum's collection is made up of 80 million specimens, with a broad range of species and deep history that are often key to allowing scientists to be certain that they have found a creature which is new to science.
An inordinate fondness for beetles
Accounting for the vast majority of animals, it will come as no surprise that most new species described this year are invertebrates.
Topping the list (again) are the beetles, with 170 new species named this year. These include a cohort of scarab beetles from New Guinea, riffle beetles from Brazil and a minute marsh-loving beetle from Malawi.
'This is urgent work,' explains Max Barclay, Senior Curator of Coleoptera (beetles) at the Museum. 'As the natural habitats of the world are diminishing daily, the importance of natural history museum collections as repositories and archives of the biodiversity of the planet, and assemblies of the tools that we need to understand diversification and the evolution of life, is ever increasing.'
This year has seen 70 new wasp and three new bee species, including Bombus tibeticus. Found in Mongolia, it is one of the highest recorded species of bumblebee in world as it buzzes around the Tibetan Plateau at 5640 metres above sea level in search of nectar.
Next up are the snails, with 51 species both fossil and living. Many of the living ones are from the deep sea, while the extinct species are helping to show how north western Europe was once a teaming coral sea host to a diversity of life comparable to what is seen in south-east Asia today.
The male and female of one of two new species of miniature tarantula (Phlogiellus daweiensis, pictured, and Phlogiellus raveni) described from Myanmar.
Found living on the Tibetian Plateau, Bombus tibeticus is thought to be one of the highest living bumblebees, along with one other species of bumblebee that lives at these heights.
One new species, a parasitic worm called Pseudoacanthocephalus goodmani, had a slightly unusual route to discovery. It was found in the faecal pellets of a guttural toad, after this rather unlucky amphibian made the accidental journey from its native Mauritius to the suburbs of Cambridge in the luggage of a tourist, topped off by surviving a cycle in a washing machine before the hitchhiker was noticed and apprehended.
There have also been nine species of moths, six new species of centipedes, nine flatworms, one butterfly and 10 bryozoans, also known as moss animals.
It is not only the living that researchers have been describing in droves. This year saw Museum scientists name 122 new fossil species.
Many of these were either barnacles or crinoids (the group which contains starfish, sea urchins and sea lilies). It also included a few oddities, such as a tiny spider that lived alongside the dinosaurs and is now trapped in amber, a fish which has changed our understanding of how shark skeletons evolved and a number of coprolites (fossil poos).
One particularly peculiar creature is Armilimax pauljamisoni, a bizarre shell-bearing animal that has been described as an armoured 'slug' due to its long soft body and spicules that cover its exterior. Found in rocks from Utah dating back to the Cambrian (541-485 million years ago) it might be related to another invertebrate called a halkieriid, but has so far defied classification.
The fossil slug is joined by the largest of this year's critters: a giant fossil wombat-like marsupial described from Australia. Named Mukupirna nambensis, meaning 'big bones' in Dieri, the Aboriginal language spoken in the region where the fossil was found, it lived 25 million years ago and grew as large as a black bear.
New species of mineral
Ten new mineral species were described this year from all around the world, including California, Greece, The Democratic Republic of Congo, Russia and even the UK. With only around 6,000 known species of minerals, this is a hugely significant contribution.
'Between 100-120 new minerals are described globally every year,' explains Mike Rumsey, the Principal Curator of Minerals at the Museum. It is even rarer to get some from the UK.
'This only happens every three or four years. We've actually had two this year, but normally it is less than that.'
One of these new minerals is called kernowite. Known from just a single location in Cornwall that has now been destroyed, this beautiful emerald-green mineral is even more impressive for the size of its crystals. It is named after Kernow, the Cornish word for Cornwall.
The world is changing at an astonishing pace, as the climate warms, land use changes and pressure on the natural world increases. It has never been more important to record life on our planet.
Before we can protect anything, we need to know what's out there. And thanks to the astonishing effort of the Museum's researchers during this difficult past year, we now know just that little bit more.