News about the natural world has not been great this year. Ice sheets are melting at unprecedented rates, greenhouse gas emissions are accelerating like “a speeding freight train,” insects appear to be disappearing. But in the midst of all this bad news, there’s a tiny bright spot: the scads of new species discovered in 2018.
Scientists are finding tens of thousands of new species a year—there were 18,000 identified in 2016. But it’s also worth noting that we’re destroying species at an alarming rate. Because we know so little about what’s out there, it’s hard to quantify how much is being lost, but estimates vary from dozens to hundreds of species a day.
“Biodiversity scientists estimate that less than 10% of species on Earth have been discovered,” says Shannon Bennett, chief of science at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, which only underscores how important it is that we document nature while these species are still around. Here are some of this year’s most interesting new finds:
Flattie spiders with ultra-fast spin moves
Three new species in the spider family Selenopidae were discovered this year by researchers working with the California Academy of Sciences. These spiders, found in the Americas, Africa, Australia, and Asia, have the quickest pivot in the world, allowing them to change direction in an eighth of a second. Those quick moves enable them to catch prey, unlike their better-known house spider relatives, who use webs to catch food.
The leopard eel
Despite what you might think at first glance, Siren reticulata is a salamander, not an eel, but it does have distinctive, leopard-like spots. Discovered in waterways around the Florida panhandle, this new species is one of the largest to be found in the US over the last century—and confirms decades of rumored sightings by locals.
New croc on the block
Mecistops leptorhynchus is the first crocodile species to be named in 80 years. The new species, also known as the Central African slender-snouted crocodile, was originally thought to be the same species as its cousin, Mecistops cataphractus, which lives in West Africa. Because the two species are now known to be distinct from one another, that means M. cataphractus is now critically endangered; there are only 500 of them left in the wild.
Genie’s dogfish: Honoring a shark pioneer
This deepwater shark’s official species name is Squalus clarkae, but it’s being colloquially named “Genie’s dogfish,” after “Shark Lady” Eugenie Clark, a marine biologist whose life work revolved around changing the public dialogue around sharks. This shark species was originally thought to be part of a different dogfish species called Squalus mitsukurii, but scientists discovered this year that it’s a species of its own. Squalus clarkae joins four fish species with the honor of being named after Clark.
A bright new coral
Scientists discovered Thesea dalioi this year off the coast of Panama. Unlike its drabber cousin, Thesea variabilis, which lives off the coasts of southern California and Costa Rica, T. dalioi is bright red. (It also bears a resemblance to a certain blood clot that’s been circulating around the internet this week.) Amid frequent news of dying coral, the discovery of a new coral species reminds us of the importance of preserving our undersea wildlife: who knows how many other undiscovered species await us, if we don’t kill them first?
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The tree that went extinct before it was named
The official designation of Vepris bali was more than 70 years in the making. A member of the Nigerian Forestry Service collected a sample of the tree in Cameroon in 1951, but it wasn’t until this year that scientists identified the tree as its own species. In their paper detailing the discovery, researchers note that Vepris bali may already be extinct, since areas in which the tree would grow have been subject to heavy logging and clearing for agriculture. “It is hoped that naming this species will relaunch efforts to rediscover and protect this species from extinction,” the authors write.
Twelve unnamed species: Your name here?
While a new species’ naming rights typically go to the researcher who discovered it, conservation non-profit Rainforest Trust is auctioning away naming rights for 12 new species discovered in South America. Among them are four orchid species, four frog species, and a legless amphibian. Some scientists have voiced concerns that the practice of auctioning naming rights focuses too much on photogenic or charismatic species, and that it could even motivate taxonomists to fraudulently claim new species in the name of profit. Others are more enthusiastic, pointing to the good that can come of the proceeds. The Rainforest Trust says money raised from their auction will be used to purchase and protect land in which the newly-named species can thrive.