News ID: 154348
Published: 0222 GMT July 03, 2016

It’s always a joy to discover a new species

It’s always a joy to discover a new species

In December 2000, George Beccaloni, an entomologist at the Natural History Museum in London, was honeymooning in southern Thailand. On a streambank near Khao Sok national park, he turned over a few rocks in search of interesting critters — and encountered a huge, startlingly ugly centipede, 20cm long.

“It was pretty horrific looking,” he told National Geographic recently.

“Very big, with long legs and a horrible dark, greenish-black colour.”

According to the Guardian The centipede escaped into the nearby stream and hid underwater until Beccaloni, armed with a stick and a water bottle, managed to trap it without suffering its venomous bite. (His wife, who curates the Natural History Museum’s spider and centipede collections, was as delighted as he was by the find.) Because centipedes normally live on dry land, Beccaloni thought he might have found something unusual, but the first expert he consulted told him that his specimen was just a variant of a widespread species.

The world’s first know amphibious centipede, which is venomous, carnivorous, and grows up to 20 centimeters long. It has been found in Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.

Several years later, however, he learned that his museum colleague Gregory Edgecombe had found two outsize aquatic centipedes near waterfalls in Laos. DNA analyses showed that the three centipedes, plus a fourth one collected in Vietnam in 1928 and misidentified in the museum’s archives, were examples of a previously unknown species.

In May, Beccaloni and Edgecombe published a formal description of the waterfall centipede — Scolopendra cataracta, the world’s first known aquatic centipede.

This chance encounter between unknown insect and insect expert might seem unlikely, but it happens all the time. In 2012, during a reporting trip to Cambodia, I met a British ornithologist named Simon Mahood who had spotted an unusual bird on the floodplains around Phnom Penh. Mahood and his colleagues kept looking and listening and eventually they confirmed that the bird was a member of an unrecognized but quite common urban species: the Cambodian tailorbird, one of two bird species found only in Cambodia.

Last year, in fact, scientists published descriptions of 18,000 previously unknown species, including a newly recognized species of giant tortoise in the Galápagos Islands, 60 species of damselflies, including one cheekily named after the Pink Floyd album Ummagumma, and a giant sundew, a carnivorous plant, which was identified after a plant enthusiast posted photos of it on Facebook. Researchers described a two-inch-long anglerfish that was unknown to science until it was spotted during marine surveys after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

In May, scientists announced the discovery of seven species of peacock spiders in Australia, and just last Wednesday, researchers in Uruguay and Columbia published a description of a newly recognized genus and species of tarantula, distinguished by its uniquely serrated genitals and named Kankuamo marquezi after the writer Gabriel Garcia Márquez.

Why so many new species? It’s partly because more people are looking, often as members of organized surveys such as the recent bioblitzes of US national parks. It’s also because previously unexplored places are becoming accessible: development and deforestation in the tropics are, ironically, making some of the world’s most biodiverse areas easier for scientists to get to. Modern tools such as satellite mapping and remotely operated underwater vehicles are allowing researchers to see places they could not otherwise reach, while DNA analysis is showing that animals that look almost identical to one another can be genetically distinct enough to be classified as different species.

DNA analyses are even helping discover species hidden in museum collections, such as the waterfall centipede at the Natural History Museum that waited almost 90 years for a proper label. And human activities, as a new paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B points out, exert powerful and varied evolutionary pressures; we may be unwittingly creating new species for our descendants to discover.

But mostly, scientists keep finding species because there are so many left to be found. Researchers have described approximately 1.9 million species, but estimates of the number of plant and animal species yet to be discovered range above 10 million. Include the rest of the tree of life and the estimates top a trillion.

Meanwhile, we are thought to be losing between one percent and 2.2 percent of the world’s species every decade, and while that may not sound like much, it’s about 1,000 times the likely background rate of species extinction and just about every metric we have suggests it will increase in coming decades.

Michelle Nijhuis is a science journalist

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