There are approximately 8.7 million documented species of life on Earth and we are discovering more every day. These are just some highlights of the amazing discoveries that have been announced this year.
A new species of carnivore was discovered this year in the Americas – the first in 35 years. The olinguito is the smallest member of the raccoon family and it looks like a small bear. They grow to be about 2 pounds (0.9 kilograms). They are endemic to the forests of Colombia and Ecuador, which are notoriously difficult to study because of the thick fog. Olinguitos are completely arboreal and are able to jump from branch to branch. They have a single pair of mammary glands, leading scientists to believe they only give birth to one offspring at a time.
While the olinguito is rightly placed in the Carnivora order, its diet makes it an omnivorous frugivore. This means that while it does ingest other animals, it much prefers to dine on fruit, like figs. Insects and nectar are also present in the olinguito’s diet.
Olinguitos actually have been known to humans for over a century, they had just been misidentified as olingos, a close cousin. A female olinguito had been sent to a few different zoos in a breeding program, but obviously was not successful at mating. Not only did we discover that oliguitos are a completely new species, but there are actually four sub-species as well.
Four new species of legless lizards were discovered in California. These lizards were discovered in somewhat populated places: an empty parking lot, oil derricks, and even at the end of a runway at LAX International Airport.
Legless lizards are different from snakes in that they have eyelids, external ear openings, and very long tails. Legless lizards are thought to have lost their legs long ago in order to maneuver on soft ground and burrow more easily.
This is the first new species discovered from the Arapaima genus since 1847. Arapaima can grow to be 2.5 m (8.2 ft) long, making them among the largest freshwater fish in the world. The fish live in the Central Amazon, in Brazil. It’s specific name, leptosoma, translates to “sleek body,” which quite apt, given that this species is sleeker than others in its genus.
An amazing defining feature of the Arapaimas is the ability to breathe air using a primitive lung, not gills. This allows them to inhabit backwaters that are not oxygen-rich.
Arapaimas are difficult to locate and catch, but researchers speculate that there could be more species in the genus to be discovered.
Bamboo sharks (also known as longtail carpet sharks) use their pectoral fins to ‘walk’ along the ocean floor. Before this discovery, there were 15 known species of bamboo shark. The newly discovered Hemiscyllium halmahera, measures 70 cm (28 in) whereas other walking sharks can grow up to 1.2 m (40 in). It was discovered off the coast of Indonesia, near Weda Resort.
It is most closely related to Hemiscyllium galei, a bamboo shark found off the coast of West Papua, though they have vastly different coloring and patterning.
Three new vertebrate species were discovered on Australia’s Cape York Peninsula. They have been reproductively isolated for millions of years, allowing them to evolve quite differently from their closest relatives. There is a gecko, a frog, and a skink.
The Cape Melville leaf-tailed gecko, Saltuarius eximius, is about 20 cm long and is nocturnal. It has a brownish striped coloring and a broad, leaflike tail that provides excellent camouflage from its prey in the trees.
The Cape Melville shade skink, Saproscincus saltus, has gold coloring and is quite active throughout the day. The name “saltus” was given to describe the way the animal uses its long legs and leaps toward its prey.
The blotched boulder frog lives between boulders during the dry season, as moisture and moss are captured between the cracks. During the rainy season, the frogs will venture out on top of the rocks to mate.
This year, for the first time since 1865, a new species of tapir was discovered in South America. Tapirus kabomani is only the fifth documented species of living tapir and is also the smallest. It weighs in at 240 pounds (110 kilograms) and is 4.2 feet (130 centimeters) from tip to tail. The Kabomani wasn’t a secret to everyone; indigenous tribes regularly hunt the animal and had tried to tell different scientists about its existence. Unfortunately, many of those scientists discounted the tribesmen’s intelligence and didn’t believe that such a small tapir actually existed. Fortunately, one research group used the local tribes to gather information and helped bring this creature into the literature.
Carolina Hammerhead Shark
A new species of hammerhead shark was discovered off the coast of South Carolina. Though it looks nearly identical to the scalloped hammerhead on the outside, genetic analysis has revealed that there is an entirely distinct species of hammerhead that was named Sphyrna gilberti. The shark was named after Carter Gilbert, an ichthyologist who unwittingly made the first description of the species in 1967. The Carolina hammerhead has ten fewer vertebrae than the scalloped hammerhead. Because genetic analysis was not available at that time, Gilbert assumed he had just found an anomaly. When Joe Quattro had ensured he was describing a new species, he decided to honor the man who really came across the shark first.
The fifth member of its genus, the scorpion Euscorpius lycius was discovered in Turkey in an area that was once known as Lycia. These scorpions are only 2.5 cm long, and though they are venomous, they do not present much of a threat. A sting from one of these feels more like a bug bite than anything else. They are a reddish brownish color and live in humid but cool forests where they spend a large amount of time just hanging out on moss covered rocks.
Three new species of antechinus have been discovered in Australia, bringing the total number to 13. These marsupials are known for the way they go for broke in the mating department. Once mating season starts, males are done making sperm and will forego eating and sleeping until it exhausts all of its reserves and attempts to mate with as many females as possible. Over the course of the next couple of weeks, it starts to become increasingly disheveled as it becomes overloaded with testosterone, stress, and an overburdened immune system. After about three weeks, the male has pushed himself to the limit and eventually falls over dead.
This past spring, a fish was announced that is not only a new species, but represents a new genus as well. Cyanogaster noctivaga is found in the Amazon, and though the caudal end of its body is transparent, the rostral end is brilliantly colored with blues, oranges, and reds. The fish is one of the smallest ever discovered, as it is only 7 mm longer than the smallest fish on record. Tip to tail, it measures only 17 mm long when it is fully grown.
Though the existence of the cat has been known for some time, Leoparda guttulus has been previously incorrectly identified as L. tigrinus, which looks incredibly similar. The cat is found in southern Brazil. Not only did researchers discover that this wasn’t the same species as L. tigrinus, they found that the two haven’t interbred for thousands of years.
These cats are pretty small. When fully grown, they weigh about 6.5 pounds (3 kilograms), which isn’t much more than a regular domesticate house cat. Researchers will have to tease out which cats belong to this novel species in order to determine their conservation status and see if they qualify for environmental protection.
During the summer, it was announced that two new species of spider have been discovered in China and both are smaller than a grain of sand. In addition to their minuscule size, the spiders live in the rainforest litter, which made them incredibly difficult to discover. Both species are orb weaving spiders in the Mysmenidae family, which unfortunately is not very well understood. Mysmena wawuensis is dark brown and measures only 0.75 millimeters while Trogloneta yuensis is more of a golden color and measures 1.01 millimeters long.
A new species of humpback dolphin was discovered this year. Although it has not yet been named, it is genetically different from the three known species of humpback dolphin. It is found in Indo-Pacific waters and was initially assumed to be a different species near the same range. Humpback dolphins are so named because of the pronounced bend in the back behind the dorsal fin. The other two humpback dolphins found in the Indo-Pacific waters are listed as “Near Threatened” by the IUCN and more information will need to be collected on this new species in order to understand its conservation status and potential needs.