New species top 10

The latest list of previously undiscovered flora and fauna reveals how little we know about the earth's riches

Experts from Conservation International and the National Geographic Society reported last week from the Foja mountains of Indonesian New Guinea that they have found several likely new species including a tree frog with a nose like Pinocchio's, a huge, tame woolly rat and a tiny forest wallaby. Such stunning finds inevitably attract headlines, but what is less well known is that new species of organisms of every kind are discovered by scientists at a rate of about two an hour: our exploration of earth's species continues at a fairly steady pace of about 18,000 species a year. In all, scientists have discovered and described about 1.9 million species. A conservative estimate of the total number of living plant and animal species is 10 to 12 million. When bacteria and other microbes are included, the number may be higher by tens of millions.

Each year, the International Institute for Species Exploration (IISE) at Arizona State University releases a list of the top 10 new species. This year the newly revealed list includes such diverse organisms as a bioluminescent worm, a giant orb-weaving spider and a tiny penis-shaped fungus. The list is an annual reminder of how diverse life on earth is, and how little we know about it. It is also a reminder of the importance of the science of species exploration, taxonomy and its dependence on collections maintained in natural history museums, botanical gardens, and research universities.

"Completing an inventory of the world's species has never been more important or urgent," says Professor Quentin Wheeler of Arizona State University, who regularly reports on species "New To Nature" in these pages. "By exploring species and assembling comprehensive natural history collections, we ensure that scientists have access to the evidence needed to refine our understanding of evolutionary history.

"More urgently, taxonomists are building baseline information about biodiversity and its distribution so that scientists can detect and monitor climate change, ecosystem sustainability, environmental degradation, and invasions of non-native species."

There is general agreement in the scientific community that we are in the early stages of a biodiversity crisis, a period of time during which a massive number of species may become extinct. Wheeler, the former keeper of entomology at the Natural History Museum in London, has helped coin the word "cybertaxonomy" to describe new uses of computer science and engineering in programmes of taxonomic research.

The IISE and its partners claim to be developing cybertaxonomy as the next logical link in a chain of scholarship reaching back to the time of Carl Linnaeus, the pioneering 18th-century Swedish botanist. "By increasing the rate of species discovery by just one order of magnitude, it will be possible to describe nearly all 'higher' organisms in less than 50 years," Wheeler says. "At the same time, molecular techniques are giving us a much better sense of the diversity of microbes."

Top 10 new discoveries

Omars' banded knifefish, Gymnotus omarorum, was misidentified as G. carapo for 30 years while used as a laboratory model organism for research on electric organs and electrocommunication by neurophysiologists.

A new species of yam from Madagascar, Dioscorea orangeana, produces beautiful flowers and edible tubers. Heavily harvested and sold along with other yam species under the common name Angona, it is critically endangered.

A new species of stinkhorn from Africa, Phallus drewesii, has been named in honour of the California Academy of Sciences herpetologist Dr Robert Drewes. The fruiting body of the fungus is 5cm (2in) long

Dracula minnow males, Danionella dracula, discovered in a stream in Burma, have a pair of fangs they use for sparring with other males. This is the first record of toothlike structures in the Cyprinidae, the largest family of freshwater fishes.

The beautiful swirling concentric rings and stripes that cover the head, body, and fins of Histiophryne psychedelica in a psychedelic pattern give this Indonesian species its name. Its flat face is unique among frogfishes.

Swima bombiviridis, a bizarre deep-sea annelid, or ringed worm, collected off the coast of California, has modified gills that it casts off like little bombs. These glow with green bioluminescence for several seconds, probably as a defensive mechanism against predators.

A critically endangered insectivorous plant from the Philippines that produces pitchers as big as an American football, Nepenthes attenboroughii is named after the naturalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough.

Chondrocladia turbiformis is a New Zealand member of the highly diverse Cladorhizidae family of deep-sea sponges, first discovered to be carnivorous 15 years ago. Most specimens in the Pacific appear to be undescribed species.

Aiteng ater represents a new species, genus and family (Aitengidae) of sea slug which feeds on insects in intertidal zones in the Gulf of Thailand. The genus name was derived from Ai Theng, a popular puppet in shadow plays (wayang) in southern Thailand.

Discovered in Madagascar, Nephila komaci is the first orb-weaving spider of the genus discovered since 1879, and the largest in the world. Related species produce webs up to 1m across.


Caspar Llewellyn Smith

The GuardianTramp

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