Scientists estimate that we humans share our planet with approximately 8.7 million other species, with over 1.2 million of these having been named and catalogued. This leaves nearly 7.5 million species undiscovered. In their Retro State of Observed Species (SOS) report the International Institute of Species Exploration recorded the finding of 176, 311 new species from 2000 to 2009, across a huge range of taxonomic groups. These new species were found in a whole host of habitats including tropical forests.
Here’s a spotlight on a few of the new species discovered recently across the globe:
1) First new American carnivore found in 35 years
The olinguito, Bassaricyon neblina, has been discovered in the cloud forest of Colombia and Ecuador by a team from the Smithsonian Institution. It is a small mammal described as looking like a cross between a teddy bear and a house cat. It has been classified in the family Procyonidae making it a relative of raccoons, coatis and olingos. Its discovery was published in the Aug. 15 issue of the journal Kookeys this year.
The possibility of a new species was first considered 10 years ago after zoologist Kristofer Helgen inspected some bones and skins from a Chicago museum. They were thought to belong to an olingo but Helgen found them to be different from those of known species. By comparing DNA samples taken from the specimens and comparing them to five known species of olingo it was possible to confirm the discovery of a new species.
The next step was to find out if it still existed in the wild. Clues from the specimen were used to predict where it might be found and the team of scientists set out to see if they could find it. Happily for them they found the olinguito in a forest on the western slopes of the Andes on their first night there and were able to discover more about the creature. The two pound animal is 14 inches long from its snout the end of its body with a 13-17 inch tail. With large eyes the olinguito is mainly active at night and eats mostly fruit though does eat some insects and nectar. The solitary animal has one baby at a time and rarely comes down out of the trees.
2) No to the mine snake
This species of snail eating-eating snake was discovered in highland rainforests of western Panama and made the IISE Top 10 New Species list for 2013. As well as snails and slugs it eats soft bodied prey such as earthworm and amphibian eggs. The 21 inch long snake has alternating light and dark rings that mimic the markings of venomous coral snakes. Though it closely resembles another species in the Sibon genus there are enough differences for it to be classified as a unique species.
Mining for ore deposits in the Serrania de Tabasará mountain range, where the species is found, is degrading and diminishing its habitat. The indigenous Ngöbe community use the phrase “No a la mina” (translates as No to the Mine) in their protests against mining interest in their territory. The snakes latin name, Sibon noalamina, is derived from this Spanish phrase. Scientists hope that the name will draw attention to the habitats plight and gain support for the local people as the struggle to protect their home. The Tabasará Mountains lost one fifth of its forest during the 90’s and little of the area is protected.
3) The world’s smallest vertebrate
In 2012 the discovery of the world smallest vertebrate was announced; a tiny 7.7 mm frog. The new species of frog, Paedophryne amanuensis, was found in Papua New Guinea. The research team were recording frog calls and kept hearing a sound they did not recognise. After managing to pinpoint where the call was coming from and rooting through the leaf litter they managed to find the tiny frog.
This frog and other ultra small frogs from around the world are often found in moist leaf litter. The link between the size of these amphibians and the habitat in which they are found suggest that this ecological niche is vital for the existence of such a tiny species. Amongst the leaf litter the frogs eat tiny insects smaller than those other frogs would eat.
Papua New Guinea could potentially be the home for many more undiscovered species, especially amphibians, as it is largely undeveloped and not well explored.
With the loss and destruction of so much of our tropical forests it is possible that we are losing species that we don’t even know exist. The olinguito had been hiding in plain sight for many years with skins being kept in museums and even a live specimen being displayed in zoo’s in the US during the 1960’s and 1970’s incorrectly thought of as an olingo. Even though it has now been discovered its habitat is under threat from human development. Many species, such as the no to the mine snake, are endemic to their area and can be found nowhere else in the world. If their habitat is lost then so too will be that species. It’s extremely important that we do what we can to preserve and protect our rainforests not just for those species that we know of but for those that we still have to find. With over 7 million species left out there to discover there is an awful amount left to see. We don’t want our unknown species to be lost before they are even found.