California researchers describe 70 new species in 2021
In 2021, researchers at the California Academy of Sciences added 70 new plant and animal species to the Tree of Life, enriching our understanding of the complex web of life on Earth and strengthening our ability to make conservation decisions. illuminated. The new species include 14 beetles, 12 sea slugs, nine ants, seven fish, six scorpions, five starfish, five flowering plants, four sharks, three spiders, two sea feathers, a moss, a pygmy pipehorse and a cécilien. More than a dozen scientists from the Academy, as well as several dozen international collaborators, have described the new species discoveries.
Proving that our vast and vibrant planet still contains unexplored places with plants and animals never before recorded, scientists have made their discoveries on five continents and three oceans, sifting through forest soils, venturing into vast deserts and diving into extreme ocean depths. Their findings help advance the Academy’s mission to regenerate the natural world through science, learning, and collaboration.
“Biodiversity is essential to the health of our planet and is being lost at a rate where sustainability practices are no longer sufficient,” says virologist and Academy Science Chief Shannon Bennett. “As stewards of our natural world, we must play an active role in the regeneration of ecosystems. Our relationship with nature improves with each new species, deepening our understanding of how our planet works and can better respond to an uncertain future. As we continue to fight climate change and a global pandemic, there has never been a more crucial time to protect the diversity of life on Earth. “
Below are the highlights of the 70 new species described by the Academy last year.
Weevils a victory for indigenous communities
Entomology Postdoctoral Fellow Matthew Van Dam describes Pachyrhynchus obumanuvu, a brightly colored Easter egg weevil from the wooded peaks of the Philippines. At 3,000 feet (914 meters) above sea level, these weevils live in the canopy of the humid, moss-covered cloud forest. Unlike most weevils, which tend to be one color, P. obumanuvu features intricate patterns of iridescent yellows and greens. Its coloring mimics the traditional clothing of its namesake, the indigenous Obu Manuvu tribe.
But collaborating researcher Analyn Cabras had additional motivations for naming this species.
“We are in a race against time under the constant threat of forest degradation,” says Cabras. “Many insects can disappear before they are even discovered.” P. obumanuvu was found in a small patch of primary forest, one of the few remaining in the region due to centuries of agriculture and over-logging. Cabras notes the power of a name to instill a sense of pride and stewardship for a species within a community. It stresses the importance of continuous species identification, especially in regions facing rapid exploitation of natural resources. “How can we teach conservation and regeneration of wildlife,” asks Cabras, “if we can’t put a name on a face? ”
A new kind of pygmy pipehorse in the Pacific
If you take a close look at the sheer underwater cliffs off the coast of Northland, New Zealand, you will likely only see a wall of red coralline algae. But to the keen eye of research associate Graham Short, Cylix tupareomanaïa, a new species of pygmy pipehorse and close cousin of seahorses, can be found cleverly camouflaged by its environment. The discovery of this elusive species sheds light on a new genus of pipehorse, the first to be reported in New Zealand since 1921.
“This discovery highlights how little we know about New Zealand’s reefs that we have explored for centuries,” said Short. “If you dive a little deeper I think we’ll identify several other new species of fish. Short’s findings uncovered other undescribed species in the Cylix kind from South Africa to Seychelles.
The new genus was determined by comparing CT scans between C. tupareomanaia and other similar species in the region. Short and his named colleagues Cylix (Latin for ‘calyx ‘) for the cup-shaped bony structure on its crest, while other genera of pipehorse have a domed crest. The name of the species, tupareomanaïa, is Maori for “seahorse garland” and represents the first time that a Maori tribe has been implicated in the name of a species endemic to the Northland region.
Scorpios reach new heights
In the canopy of the tropical forests of the lowlands of Mexico, you will find unexpected residents: scorpions. This year, Islands 2030 Initiative co-lead and curator of arachnology Lauren Esposito and graduate student Aaron Goodman describe six new species of bark scorpions from Guatemala and Mexico. While people generally associate scorpions with arid desert climates, these bark scorpions find respite from predators, namely the larger scorpions, high in the treetops of undisturbed primary forests. One of the new scientific scorpions, Centruroides catemacoensis, has developed an extraordinary tactic to escape predators. With the ability to discern the rustling winds of an approaching predator, vs. catemacoensis abandon its perch at the first sign of a nearby threat, falling to the safety of the forest floor.
“Once they hit the leaf litter, you won’t find them,” Goodman says. Goodman used this to his advantage during nighttime surveys, tapping branches with PVC pipes to mimic predators and triggering scorpions to fall into the nets waiting below.
Cecilian detective in São Tomé
Since colonial times, biologists have questioned whether the São Tomé caecilian, a limbless burrowing amphibian, is one or two separate species. After carefully studying the genetic markers of 85 individuals from the island of São Tomé in the Gulf of Guinea, Islands 2030 co-lead of the initiative and curator of herpetology Rayna Bell provides the strongest evidence to date that the island is home to two unique species of Caecilians.
About 300,000 years ago, an explosion of volcanic activity streaked São Tomé with lava flows, dividing the island and the Caecilians into unique and isolated habitats. This separation likely caused the species to diverge as they acclimated to the environmental pressures of their new territories. As the lava flows eroded, the once impenetrable barriers disappeared, allowing the resulting two species to become neighbors again. Millennia of interbreeding and hybridization have since masked the presence of two species by blurring the genetic lines between them. While the long debate over this species is familiar, Bell’s discovery is a major step towards understanding and protecting the two São Tomé Caecilians.
Guitarfish scratches a new tune for fishing
Ichthyology research associate David Ebert describes two blue-dot sea guitars from Madagascar (Acroteriobatus andysabini) and Socotra (Acroteriobatus stehmanni). They are coastal rays with elongated bodies and flattened heads that look, you guessed it, like guitars. Due to their proximity to humans and their ability to be easily caught, these shark-like rays are among the most endangered of all cartilaginous fish.
A. andysabini, the larger of the two newly described species, was previously grouped with another species of sea guitar. This lack of taxonomic knowledge has been detrimental to the Malagasy sea guitar, as local small-scale fisheries continue to overfish without regulation. Ebert’s conclusion that there are in fact two distinct species put conservation at the forefront, helping to facilitate Madagascar’s first national action plan to protect sharks and rays.
Working with local fisheries to incorporate species identification into their practice, Ebert hopes for harmony between the Guitars of the Sea and the nearby coastal communities they support.
“How to manage the protection of species in a region where food security is a predominant problem?” Ebert asks. “It’s not just about protecting these animals; it’s about finding long-term solutions for stingrays and human populations.
Starfish shine on coral reefs
In the past year, invertebrate zoology research associate Christopher Mah, PhD, has described five echinoderms new to science – a group of marine animals that includes starfish, sea urchins, sea cucumbers and more – from Rapa Nui (Easter Island) and New Caledonia. After careful consideration of the images of a remote control vehicle and starfish specimens provided by Academy biologists and Hope for the reefs initiative co-leaders Luiz Rocha and Bart Shepherd, Mah described the Indo-Pacific starfish Uokeaster ahi.
Igniting the reef with its bright orange color, U. ahi aptly named for its fiery hue—ahi, meaning ‘fire’ in the Rapa Nui language. ‘Uokeaster ‘ is derived from the mythological sea deity Uoke, which, according to legend, submerged the once mainland Rapa Nui under the sea, leaving only its highest mountain peaks exposed. U. ahi resides in this “original” Rapa Nui – the reefs just below the surface.
Starfish greatly contribute to the health of coral reefs. Remove them and the ecosystem becomes unbalanced. So the more we know about them, the better we can protect these increasingly fragile ecosystems.
“You never know what benefit will be gained from studying the unknown,” says Mah, “whether it’s a tangible benefit as an anticancer drug or an ecological benefit in protecting coral reefs.” .
Republished courtesy of the California Academy of Sciences. Photo: This well-camouflaged pygmy pipehorse, Cylix tupareomanaia, represents a new genus and species of pipehorse, discovered off the coast of Northland, New Zealand. Credit: Richard Smith © 2021