Purring monkeys, glue-spitting worms and vegetarian piranhas were just a few of the species discovered in 2013, and the door is open for uncovering more amazing new animals in the year ahead. There are 8.7 million species on earth (not counting bacteria), and surprisingly 86 percent of all land species and 91 percent of all ocean species have yet to be discovered by science.
“It’s really extraordinary. We know so little about the true biodiversity on our planet,” said Melanie Stiassny, curator of the American Natural History’s Department of Ichthyology, who has spent her career studying fish diversity. “A lot of people think that Darwin completed documenting the species but in fact, there has been a renaissance in the study of species discovery, in part because of the biodiversity crisis. How can we know what we are losing if we don’t know what was there? And in part because of new technologies. A lot of new tools are at our disposal.”
Higher-powered molecular and electron microscopes are helping researchers uncover an enormous microbial world that was previously too tiny to identify. Advances in underwater exploration are allowing prospectors to investigate the previously inaccessible deep ocean. New developments in genetic research are uncovering “cryptic species,” outwardly similar to other species but very different when their genetic code is analyzed.
Insects, microbes, and fish dominate the latest discoveries because they have a high degree of biodiversity and often come from environments that are largely unexplored. New mammals and birds are rare, but not impossible, as last year’s discovery of the purring monkey illustrates.
Singling out a bona fide find isn’t easy. “To be able to recognize something as new, you need to have a very good knowledge of everything related to it,” said Stiassny, “so describing species and recognizing biodiversity is a very specialized pursuit.”
Once you’ve found a new species, you have to prove it. That can take years of work identifying the characteristics that set it apart from any other creature on earth. The species is named based on the rules of the “International Code of Zoological Numenclature” and the research is peer-reviewed before anything becomes official. Here are 10 new creatures that made the cut in 2013:
1. Rinjani Scops Owl
The Rinjani Scops owl (Otus jolandae) is small and compact—about the same size as the North American screech-owl—with brown plumage, a whitish belly, and two distinctive ear tufts. It was discovered in Lombok, Indonesia by two independent ornithologists, just days apart: George Sangster of the Swedish Museum of Natural History and Ben King of the American Museum of Natural History.
The owl was the first native bird to be recorded on the remote island. “Even with the right mindset and the right equipment,” Sangster said, “you will not find any new species if you are not in the right place.”
It was named after the Gunung Rinjani, a large and active volcano on the island, because it was discovered in its foothills.
2. Legless Lizard
About the size of pencil, with a long scaly body and no limbs, this creature might look like a tiny snake, but it’s not. It is one of four new species of “legless lizard” discovered in California last year. How can you tell the difference? “If you look carefully at them, you will see that they have eyelids and they can blink, whereas snakes have fixed, open eyes,” explained Theodore Papenfuss, a co-author on the study that formally described the species in a September journal article.
The discovery brings the count of known-legless lizard species in California to five. The first of the four new lizards was discovered in a vacant lot in downtown Bakersfield, California and its discovery spurred the researchers to search for more. Since these lizards can be difficult to find because they live hidden in sandy soil, the scientists used large pieces of cardboard and plywood scraps to attract them at a variety of locations. In the end, they found four species of legless lizards hiding in four different locations: Bakersfield, dry canyons on the edge of the Mojave Desert, a field full of oil derricks, and a sand dune bordering a runway at Los Angeles International Airport.
“It’s pretty cool because these are discoveries right here in California,” said Papenfuss. “A lot of people think if you want to find a new species, you have to go to Borneo or Madagascar. Well, not really. There’s unknown biodiversity to still be uncovered right here.”
This cute, furry raccoon-sized mammal is called the olinguito (Bassaricyon neblina) and it was “discovered” in a natural history museum. Smithsonian scientist Kristofer Helgen was sorting through specimens of a related group of animals called olingos when he started finding misidentified remains of what appeared to be a different species. When he and his colleagues studied the skins and skulls of both the olingo and the mislabeled species they found that the two were in fact very different. The newly discovered animal, now named olinguito, has uniquely shaped teeth and a smaller skull with a less pronounced snout. It is overall a smaller animal with a rounder face, littler ears, and fluffier fur and is more orangish-brown; the olingo is a duller tan or grey color.
Both the olingo and olinguito are members of the raccoon family, in the order Carnivora (along with bears, cats, dogs and other mammals). “With so many millions of specimens available for study at natural history museums and so much life on earth, it might not be unexpected to uncover an overlooked animal species in a museum collection,” Helgen explained, “but to find one in this order carnivora was really unexpected and really exciting. This is the best studied portion of the mammal tree of life.”
The nocturnal olinguito lives in the cloud forests of Ecuador and Colombia. Currently it is not considered endangered. The discovery of the olinguito was announced on August 15, 2013 in the journal ZooKeys.
4. Caqueta titi monkey
With a chestnut red-colored belly and beard, the newly discovered Caqueta titi monkey or Callicebus caquetensis, is only about the size of a domestic cat. But that’s not where the feline similarities end. Baby Caquetas have a particularly cute, kitty-like trait: “When they feel very content, they purr towards each other,” explained researcher Thomas Defler in a press release for the World Wildlife Fund.
The Caqueta titi monkey was among the 441 new species of animals and plants discovered by the WWF in an underexplored Amazon rainforest. It is one of about 20 known species of titi monkey that live in the Amazon basin. These monkeys are monogamous and rear just one young per year.
Only about 250 of these small primates remain in the world and they are listed as “critically endangered” on the IUCN’s Red List. The Caqueta is threatened by widespread habitat destruction and fragmentation caused by ranching and illegal crop cultivation. In eastern Columbia, they are also sometimes hunted for food.
5. New Humpback Dolphins
When researchers set out to find a new species of humpback dolphin, they hit the jackpot, discovering not one, but two. As their name suggests, these dolphins have a characteristic hump below their dorsal fin. They are genetically unique enough to be classified as different species (also distinguishable from two previously known humpback dolphins). One of the new dolphins, found off the coast of North Australia, surprised them most of all because it had been hiding in plain sight; no one had previously recognized that it might be different from the others.
The joint study, which included researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society and the American Museum of Natural History, was published in Molecular Ecology in October 2013. The scientists hope that this current research will help conservation efforts to protect the animals. Currently, humpback dolphins are at risk according to the IUCN Red List.
The new humpback dolphins have yet to be officially named. That will be done after separate but complimentary studies confirm the findings.
6. Carolina Hammerhead Shark
In August, conservation geneticist Joe Quattro discovered a new shark, the Carolina hammerhead (Sphryna gilbert) while doing genetic research on divergences in fish found in South Carolina’s major river systems. After examining the genetics of hammerhead tissue samples collected, he noticed genetic differences between hammerhead species.
Outwardly, the new shark is almost undistinguishable from the common, scalloped hammerhead shark. “Morphologically, they differ by ten vertebrae,” said Quattro, who published his findings in Zootaxa. “The [scalloped hammerhead] has ten more, on average, than the new thing we found.” He thinks the new species might also be slightly smaller.
The Carolina hammerheads are found in North and South Carolina, Brazil and Florida; researchers are still not sure if they exist in other regions or how rare this new shark is.
7. Epaulette Shark
A new walking shark, called the Epaulette shark (Hemiscyllium Halmahera), with a unique pattern of brown spots across its head, was discovered in the coastal reefs off Indonesia. It’s called a walking shark because it uses its pectoral and pelvis fins to move across the bottom of the ocean when looking for food.
Although first photographed in 2008, it wasn’t formally identified as a new species until August 2013. Indonesia appears to be a popular region for walking sharks; six out of nine known species live there.
8. Glue-Spitting Velvet Worm
This new species of velvet worm, Eoperipatus totoros, is a fierce little predator: it spits an immobilizing, glue-like net onto its prey, injects it with saliva, then devours it.
At two-and-a-half inches, this velvet worm species is the first of its kind to be discovered in Vietnam. It was scientifically described in Zoologischer Anzeiger (A Journal of Comparative Zoology) in August.
“These animals are very difficult to find because most of the year, the volcanic soil [they live in] is dry on the surface,” said study co-author Ivo de Sena Oliveira. “Velvet worms are typically confined to humid habitats so the animal spends most of the year deep in the soil. They are found on the surface only during the wet season, but only rarely, and under stones and pieces of rock.”
Interestingly, the hydrostatic pressure of the worm’s fluid-filled body allows them to walk, albeit very slowly, on stubby, jointless little legs.
9. Vegetarian Piranha
Piranhas might have a notoriously frightening reputation, but this newly discovered species is a vegetarian. It only eats water plants. Found in the Trombetas River basin in Para of the Brazilian Amazon, this freshwater fish, which can grow up to 20 inches wide and weigh up to nine pounds, lives among the rocky rapids of the river where seedlings of plants sprout between the rocks.
The new piranha, called Tometes camunani, is one of hundreds of recently discovered species of animals and plants announced by the World Wildlife Fund in late October 2013. Like all these recently discovered Amazonian species, researchers believe the fish is unique to the rainforest region, making it particularly vulnerable to the threat of extinction.
10. Cryptic New Wild Cat
In November 2013, scientists accidentally discovered a cryptic new species of wild cat in Brazil. Until recently, researchers believed one species of Brazilian tigrina lived in two different locations. Through blood tests and DNA analysis they discerned that the northeastern and southeastern tigrinas were in fact two distinct species that do not interbreed. Their research was published in the journal, Current Biology.
Both tigrinas are barely bigger than a house-cat. The southeastern tigrina has a yellow-brown coat with black patterns similar to a leopard and it lives primarily in savannahs, dry shrub lands, and forests. The northeastern tigrina looks almost identical, but it has a slightly lighter colored coat and lives in denser and wetter forests.
Even before the study revealed two distinct species, the tigrinas were listed as endangered by the IUCN’s red list. With the species now halved, they are even more vulnerable than previously believed.
11. Cambodian Tailorbird
It is very rare to discover a new bird species in urban environments, and yet, that is exactly where researchers discovered the Cambodian tailorbird (Orthotomus chaktomuk): right outside the busy city of Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
As to why the bird wasn’t discovered until now, researchers aren’t exactly sure. Simon Mahood, the lead author of the findings published in Forktail, says even though tailorbirds are common in tropical Asia, they are secretive, staying well hidden in the vegetation, and thus appear to have gone unnoticed. “The new species doesn’t really look like any other known species of tailorbird,” he explained, “but if you don’t think that you are going to see a new species, then you probably won’t. I had been visiting a site where the birds are common for six months without ‘seeing’ it prior to its discovery.”
The Cambodian tailorbird belongs to the warbler family and its distribution is very limited, found only in the scrubby habitat of the floodplain of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers. It has a unique song very different from other tailorbirds and was shown to be a separate species after its plumage and its DNA were analyzed. No one has found its nest yet, but researchers expect it would be similar to other tailorbirds, made out of an intricate weaving of leaves.
“If anything, the discovery of this bird indicates that there is still lots to be learned from the world and lots of exciting discoveries to be made, right on our doorsteps,” said Mahood. “At a time when we are always hearing about habitat loss and species going extinct, it is good to remember that we can still find new and exciting things.”