• Scientists at the California Academy of Sciences discovered 70 new plant and animal species last year.
  • They include a blue-spotted guitarfish, the identification of which has helped in the establishment of a protection plan for sharks and rays in Madagascar.
  • Other new species identified include a brightly coloured Easter egg weevil and a pygmy pipehorse, which is a master of camouflage.

With the surface of the earth coming in at over 510 million square kilometres, it is little wonder there is still more to discover. Researchers at the California Academy of Sciences last year recorded 70 new plant and animal species.

From lowland forests in Madagascar to coral reefs off Easter Island, the scientists’ new discoveries have contributed to our understanding of biodiversity and the importance of conservation. They include 14 beetles, 12 sea slugs, nine ants, seven fish, six scorpions, five sea stars, five flowering plants, four sharks, three spiders, two sea pens, one moss, one pygmy pipehorse, and one caecilian.

“Our relationship to nature improves with each new species, deepening our understanding of how our planet works and can best respond to an uncertain future,” says Academy virologist and Chief of Science Shannon Bennett.

“As we continue to battle a changing climate and a global pandemic, there has never been a more crucial time to protect the variety of life on Earth.”

Here are seven of their new discoveries.

A man holding a large ray, called a blue-spotted guitarfish.
Malagasy fisherman with blue-spotted guitarfish.
Image: David Ebert

Blue-spotted guitarfish

So-called because of the shape of their body, guitarfish are coastal rays. They are among the most endangered of all cartilaginous fish because they live near to humans and are easily fished. This blue-spotted guitarfish is one of two newly identified in Madagascar by scientist David Ebert.

Malagasy guitarfish are being overfished without regulation. Ebert’s discovery that there are two distinct species, however, has drawn attention to the importance of conservation and helped the country draw up its first national action plan to protect sharks and rays.

A black and white patterned insect on a green lead, called an Easter egg weevil.
Easter egg weevil from Davao Region/Mindanao Island, Philippines.
Image: Analyn Cabras

Easter egg weevil

This brightly coloured weevil was found in the dense, damp canopies of the Philippines cloud forest. Unlike most weevils, which tend to be just one colour, the Easter egg weevil has a complex pattern of iridescent yellows and greens. It has been given the scientific name Pachyrhynchus obumanuvu as its colouration is similar to the traditional garments of the indigenous Obu Manuvu tribe.

A red, brown and white pipehorse, similar to a seahorse.
Pygmy pipehorse from New Zealand.
Image: Richard Smith

Pygmy pipehorse

This pygmy pipehorse was discovered expertly camouflaged in the red coralline algae-covered underwater cliffs off the coast of Northland, New Zealand. It is closely related to seahorses and has brought to light the first new genus of pipehorse reported in New Zealand in 100 years.

A translucent scorpion on a green leaf,
A new bark scorpion from Guatemala.
Image: Aaron Goodman

Bark scorpion

This Guatemalan bark scorpion is one of six new species to be named from Guatemala and Mexico. Although scorpions are usually associated with arid, desert conditions, bark scorpions make their home in the high treetops of primary forests. One of the recently discovered species has an impressive tactic to evade predators - it drops to the ground, disguising itself among the leaf litter. The research team exploited this tactic, tapping branches with pipes and catching scorpions in waiting nets as they tried to escape their tree perches.

An orange and white seaslug.
Sea slug in South Africa.
Image: Terry Gosliner

Sea slug

This technicolour sea slug was one of several to be discovered by scientists in the past year. These slow-moving ocean dwellers are some of the most colourful species on earth. One of these experts is the Academy’s Dr Terry Gosliner, Senior Curator of Invertebrate Zoology and Geology. He is believed to have discovered more than a third of all known species of sea slugs.

An orange starfish.
Starfish from Rapa Nui.
Image: Ariadna Mecho

Sea star

Another celebration of bright orange, this sea star is one of five new-to-science echinoderms from Rapa Nui (Easter Island) and New Caledonia described by scientist Christopher Mah in 2021. Echinoderms are a group of marine animals that include sea stars, sea urchins and sea cucumbers, among other creatures.

Because of its colour, it has been given the scientific name Uokeaster ahi, ahi meaning ‘fire’ in the Rapa Nui language.

A man holding an orange caecilian.
A São Tomé caecilian.
Image: Andrew Stanbridge

São Tomé caecilian

Biologists have long debated whether the São Tomé caecilian is one or two distinct species. After studying genetic markers from the limbless burrowing amphibians, they have concluded that there are in fact two separate species, but millennia of interbreeding have blurred the genetic lines between them.