Dinosaurs and meteorites: Museum scientists described 552 new species in 2021
Over the last year, Museum scientists have described 552 new species.
This year's cohort includes a dinosaur unlike anything seen before, worms from one of the most remote environments on Earth, jewel-like beetles and a meteorite that crash-landed in the UK.
Each new species is a single jigsaw piece that, when added into the larger picture, allows scientists to get a better grasp on how all life on our planet – both past and present – is critical for our own survival.
Despite international travel remaining largely off limits this past year, experts at the Museum have continued their busy work in documenting the planet's life and geology.
This has seen researchers, curators and scientific associates describing an incredible 552 species new to science.
The discoveries range across the entire tree of life, from some of the smallest invertebrates swimming in the oceans to ferocious predators that stalked the land millions of years ago. This work is vital, as the only way to protect nature is to understand it.
Dr Tim Littlewood, the Director of Science at the Museum, says, 'Finding - or finding out about - something for the first time is at the root of discovery.
'Discovery can be a personal, community or even a global revelation, or just a nudge towards advancing knowledge. Discovering new species is what the Museum does, and it's a matter of personal and institutional pride that we continue to be at the forefront of recognising and naming new species - especially at a time when we are losing so many.'
A rabble of dinosaurs
The biggest and by far most fearsome new species to have been described this year are a pair of giant carnivorous dinosaurs known as spinosaurs. Discovered on the Isle of Wight by PhD student Jeremy Lockwood, the predators have been named the 'riverbank hunter' and 'hell heron' after the swampy environment they would have lived and hunted in.
The spinosaurs were just two of the six new dinosaurs to have been described by Museum scientists, four of which were from the UK.
These have included the truly bizarre Spicomellus afer, the earliest ankylosaur and first to have been found in Africa, Rhomaleopakhus turpanensis, a chunky sauropod from China, Brighstoneus simmondsi, a new iguanodontian with an unusual snout also from the Isle of Wight and Pendraig milnerae, the earliest carnivorous dinosaur from the UK.
'It's been a fantastic year for the description of new dinosaurs, especially from the UK,' says Dr Susannah Maidment, a dinosaur researcher and curator at the Museum who helped describe some of these new finds.
'Although we've known about the UK's dinosaur heritage for over 150 years, the application of new techniques and new data from around the world is helping us to uncover a hidden diversity of British dinosaurs.
'These specimens are parts of a vast palaeobiological jigsaw puzzle that allows us to understand environments of the past and how they changed over time.'
In addition to these discoveries, there have been a number of other fossil finds. These have included fossil bryozoans (or moss animals), algae, brachiopods and arachnids trapped in amber, but also an ancient crocodile relative and two ancient mammals.
The first of these, Megalomys camerhogne, belonged to a group of rodents that once lived scattered across the Caribbean, while the other, Borealestes cullinensis, is a 'Jurassic mouse' from Scotland that would have scurried around the feet of dinosaurs 166 million years ago.
Recovering a fireball
One of the biggest science stories this year was when, during lockdown in February, a large chunk of space rock burnt through the atmosphere before coming to a sudden stop on a driveway in the Gloucestershire town of Winchcombe.
Hundreds of people spotted the fireball streaking across the night sky. Within a matter of hours, researchers were able to recover over 600 grams of the meteorite, which had travelled billions of kilometres and reached over 1,600°C as it burnt through the atmosphere.
Now officially classified as the Winchcombe meteorite, it is one of only 603 approved meteorites classified as carbonaceous chondrites. Each official meteorite becomes its own type specimen, which is roughly analogous to being a new species.
'The Winchcombe meteorite is the first meteorite fall to be recovered in the UK for 30 years,' explains Dr Helena Bates, a researcher at the Museum who was involved with recovering the meteorite. 'Winchcombe is thought to come from an asteroid that has remained largely unchanged since the birth of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago.'
The year of the copepod
Most of the new species described this year have been crustaceans, in particular a group known as copepods.
These are small, shrimp-like creatures that are found anywhere there is water, from high mountain lakes to the deepest ocean trenches. Despite their small and unassuming appearance, they are critical to the planet's ecology and carbon cycle. Forming the major component of zooplankton, they are vital food for fish, krill and other animals.
Their incredible abundance means copepods are one of the biggest carbon sinks in the oceans. Commensurate with this importance to marine ecosystems, scientists at the Museum have described an incredible 291 species of copepods this year.
Along with his colleague in South Korea, Prof Geoff Boxshall has spent the last year working his way through an immense collection created over a period of six decades by French researchers Claude and Françoise Monniot who, when studying sea squirts, saved every copepod they found and preserved them.
'Copepods are not only free-living but many are parasites and they can be found living in virtually every other major animal group,' explains Geoff. 'I have been focusing my research on these parasitic copepods from fishes and marine invertebrate hosts.
'The huge Monniot collection was made available to Il-Hoi Kim and myself, and as we are both recently retired, theoretically we had time to finally go through it. However, the collection was so enormous it was somewhat outfacing - but then COVID-19 happened.
'Completing the series of papers became my lockdown project when I was unable to enter the Museum.'
In addition to the extraordinary work by Geoff and his colleague, Museum scientists have also described 52 species of wasps, seven crabs, six flies, five amphipods and 13 moths, including a species with the longest tongue in the world which was predicted to exist by Darwin and Wallace.
Once again there was also an impressive haul of beetles with 91 new species described this year. This has included a pair of glitteringly purple and green metallic beetles from India, a chunky monochromatic beetle with a large pair of jaws from the Philippines and a minute marsh-loving beetle named in honour of the Chief Mouser of 10 Downing Street, Larry the cat.
One of the most enigmatic new species was known by its song for decades before the animal itself. In 1990, a paper was published describing the song of a bush-cricket from Southeast Asia, despite the animal that produced it being unknown.
This year it was finally determined that the seductive stridulations were the sweet song of a species found in Singapore now known as Mecopoda simonodoi, a specimen of which has actually been sitting in the collections since 1984.
Plants, snakes and parasites
Five new species of plants were described from eastern Africa.
Known as jewelweeds or touch-me-nots, they usually produce delicate pink or white flowers, except for a few species which have switched to producing red flowers. This is because, rather than being pollinated by butterflies, the flowers are instead visited by birds, which find it easier to pick the colour red out from amongst green foliage.
In addition to the plants, there are eight new species of algae, six parasitic worms and three diatoms.
Finally, there are 10 new species of reptiles and amphibians. Of these, five are new snakes including one now called Joseph's racer, which was described with the help of a 185-year-old painting. Three new species of lizards have also been described, including a fan-throated lizard and a gecko from India.
While one new species of frog from Vietnam makes the list, another species was declared as likely being extinct. There has also been a new species of caecilian, which are snake-like amphibians that live primarily underground and in water.
With the world continuing to warm at an unprecedented rate, it has never been more important to record what is currently alive and what was here before, with every single species playing a crucial role in the functioning of our planet.