The New Species On The Block
Today’s guest post is by C&EN Associate Editor and frequent Newscripts contributor Michael Torrice.
Some of the science stories that thrill me most are ones about researchers traveling to isolated spots on the globe in search of never-before-described species. For that reason, I’m a fan of the annual top 10 list of new species put out by the International Institute for Species Exploration at Arizona State University. (See my Newscripts column on the 2011 list.)
Since 2008, the institute has published the list as a way to raise people’s awareness of the Earth’s biodiversity. It announces the list each year on May 23, the birthday of Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy.
Botanists, zoologists, entomologists, and other scientists report about 18,000 newly described species every year. The institute solicits nominations for its top 10 from experts and the public via its website. This year, a committee of 13 scientists considered more than 200 nominees.
This year’s top 10 includes a pale yellow poppy that grows at an elevation of 10,000 feet in the Himalayas, an iridescent blue tarantula that crawls along the Amazon River basin, and a Malaysian fungus named after the cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants (C&EN Senior Editor Jyllian Kemsley wrote about the fungus for Newscripts back in 2011).
Here are my favorites.
Bulbophyllum nocturnum – The night-blooming orchid.
Many plants have flowers that open at night: for example, several species of cacti and water lilies. But out of the 25,000 known species of orchid, this species, reported in 2011, is the only one scientists have found that blooms after the sun sets.
André Schuiteman of the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, in the U.K., and his colleagues observed the nighttime flowers only after a colleague brought the plant back from a rainforest in Papua New Guinea. By light of day, the researcher had found it growing on a fallen tree.
When the botanists started cultivating the orchid in the U.K., they noticed small flower buds, but never actually saw them open. “Someone had the bright idea to bring the plant home and see what it did at night,” Schuiteman says. The scientist then witnessed the flowers opening after 10 p.m. and closing by morning.
The team doesn’t know which species of insect pollinates the orchid. Schuiteman suspects some species of fly mistakes the odd-looking flowers for fungus. The yellow-green flowers have “strange appendages that move with the slightest air current,” Schuiteman says. “They look like fungi or insects or spiders.” They also have a faint fungus-like odor, he says.
Kollasmosoma sentum – The dive-bombing wasp.
José-María Gómez Durán of the National Institute for Agriculture and Food Research and Technology, in Madrid, is an amateur ant enthusiast. One day in 2010, he was filming ant colonies in the parking lot outside the building where he works. When he watched the videos, he noticed tiny wasps hovering a centimeter off the ground outside the ant nest. These 2-mm-long wasps would sometimes dart at the worker ants.
Wasps attacking ants didn’t surprise him: Some families of the flying insects are known for laying their eggs inside ants. But what did surprise him was the wasps’ strafing speed. Each attack lasted, on average, 0.05 seconds.
He shared his observations with Kees van Achterberg of the Netherlands Center for Biodiversity Naturalis, who studies European parasitic wasps. Van Achterberg was amazed not only by the wasps’ quickness, but also by the complex acrobatics they go through to inject their egg into the ant.
The wasp lands on the ant and grabs onto its back-end. Like a gymnast on a pommel horse, the parasitic insect then twists and flips to position itself in the right spot to puncture the ants’ exoskeleton and drop in an egg.
Van Achterberg says the wasp has to move quickly because the genus of ant it attacks (Cataglyphis) can become very agitated when approached. A slower wasp might get a smack from a back leg or, even worse, attacked by the ants’ crushing mandibles.
The wasp larva develops inside the ant for about three weeks, while the ant is still alive. But just before the larva enters the pupa stage, it devours the ant’s organs and the insect dies. Eventually a female wasp emerges from the ant carcass and the cycle continues.
Halicephalobus mephisto – The devil’s worm.
T.C. Onstott of Princeton University, Gaetan Borgonie of Ghent University, in Belgium, and their colleagues spotted the nematodes in water trapped between subterranean rock formations. When miners drill a new mine, their giant drill bits sometimes pierce through rock holding back pockets of this water. If the miners can’t easily drain the water, they close off the holes and find a new direction to drill in. “For the miners, it’s really a pain to run into these fluid-filled fractures,” Onstott says. “But it’s our window into what life exists down there.” The researchers passed several thousands of liters of this deep water through filters like the ones in swimming pools to catch the microscopic worms.
Based on radioisotope dating, the researchers estimate that this water hasn’t touched the Earth’s surface in 5,000 to 25,000 years. The water certainly provides an extreme environment for the worms: Its temperature is about 37 ºC; its oxygen concentrations are 1/10 those found at the surface; and it is loaded with methane gas.
Understanding how this worm and its bacterial neighbors have evolved to live in these conditions, Onstott says, could help biologists imagine what life might be like below the surface of other planets. Studying the organisms is “sort of a substitute for going to Mars and looking for life,” he says, “which isn’t going to happen in my lifetime.”
Rhinopithecus strykeri – The
Thomas Geissmann of University of Zurich and his colleagues found the new species in a mountainous region of Myanmar. The team was in Myanmar to estimate the population size of Hoolock gibbons, Geissmann’s main interest, and to survey the primate’s habitat. As part of the survey, they interviewed hunters from nearby villages to get a sense of what other animals lived in the gibbons’ area. “These people spend much of their time in the forests and know the most about the animals there,” Geissmann says.
In late 2010, they interviewed a hunter from the northern part of the country who described an all-black monkey. At first, the interviewer thought he was describing a species of leaf monkey (Trachypithecus). But when he showed the hunter a picture of a leaf monkey, the hunter said it wasn’t the one he saw. The monkey he spotted had an up-turned nose.
The nose description fit that of a snub-nosed monkey, which has small winglike needles above each nostril. But no scientist had ever seen a snub-nosed monkey in Myanmar. Geissmann’s team eventually bumped into another hunter who had trapped one of the monkeys. When they examined the monkey, the researchers determined it was a new species.
People in the area also told the team a cute anecdote about the monkeys: When it rains, the critters sneeze because water falls into their odd-shaped noses. Sadly, Geissmann thinks this is a legend. He points out that snub-nosed monkeys often make staccato calls to their peers that sound like tiny sneezes.
After further surveys in the area, the team concluded that only about 260 to 330 of these monkeys exist. With such a small population and heavy hunting in the area, the species could go extinct in a few decades, Geissmann thinks.
He says his team was lucky to have spotted these monkeys before they disappeared. “Here we discovered something completely new and it could have been easily lost to the world if we had come maybe 20 years later,” Geissmann says. “But who knows, maybe there are more species waiting in small forest pockets, waiting to be discovered.”
UPDATED 6/7/12: Corrected Kees van Achterberg’s name.