I’ve always been interested in learning about the different plants and animals that live across the globe- some of them seem so strange and unlikely. I especially like to hear about newly discovered species. I’m envious of the adventurous naturalists who were the first to leave their respective continents to search for different species. Imagine sending word back to Europe about kangaroos, birds of paradise, bison! Nowadays, it would be a whole lot harder to find a species that the Western world hasn’t heard about and documented.
But it still happens, and it’s still an important job! New species are interesting to me because they show us that life is profoundly diverse, and our knowledge of it only skims the surface. Each new discovery tells us more about how species are related and how they came to be. We know so much, but we haven’t noticed entire species under our noses, and some of them are quite large.
I once read an article about rare orchids in Smithsonian magazine when I was about 13 and decided that being an explorer/botanist would be a good job. I haven’t quite followed that track but it could still make a good second career. For practice, I’m going to live out my fantasy of being a naturalist from the 1800’s by describing three species to you that have been discovered quite recently, the way that they would have- by drawing them, writing about them (and embedding hyperlinks).
The leafhopper: A group of scientists surveyed an area in Southeast Surinam and found 60 new species! One of them is a very strange looking planthopper insect. It is yellow, brilliant red and silver. It looks rather a lot like a fly used for fly fishing, because it has a tuft of wax strands coming out its back end. It is thought that this may be to distract predators away from its body.
Source: Conservation International
The Araguaia river dolphin: We’ve known about a few species of river dolphins that live in freshwater rivers in Asia and South America. One may have even become extinct very recently, the Yangtze river dolphin, due to industrialization and pollution. Even though you would think it would be hard to miss a dolphin, it’s easy to assume two species are the same when they really are not. We now know that there is a group of about 1,000 river dolphins in the Araguaia River that are a distinct species, similar to the Amazon River dolphins.
Source: Hrbek et al, PLOS One Journal
Attenborough’s pitcher: Carnivorous plants are incredible in the first place. A new gigantic species of pitcher plant was found in 2009 and named after Sir David Attenborough. Plant poachers threaten this exquisite species: as soon as it was discovered, it was also declared critically endangered.
New discoveries are exciting. They also remind us that what we don’t know exceeds what we know. So keep looking and learning!