What do a 12 -meter-tall tree hiding in plain sight, a clean-room microbe that could pose a hazard during space travel and a sea anemone that lives under an Antarctic glacier have in common? They are all on the 2014 Top 10 New Species list, compiled by the International Institute for Species Exploration. The institute hopes to raise public awareness of the rich, diverse planet.
One of the featured discoveries is from Costa Rica.
Quentin Wheeler wants to draw attention to the diversity of life on Earth.
“I think most people would be surprised to learn that, on average, we describe about 17,000 and 18,000 new species each year,” said Wheeler. Here is the list:
• Tinkerbella nana, named for Peter Pan’s fairy sidekick, measures just 250 micrometers and is among the smallest insects. It was collected by sweeping vegetation in secondary growth forest at LaSelva Biological Station in Costa Rica. Like other fairy flies, it presumably has a life span of not more than a few days and attacks the eggs of other insects.
• Living in complete darkness some 900-plus meters below the surface in the Lukina Jama-Trojama caves of western Croatia, the domed land snail lacks eyes, and has no shell pigmentation, giving it a ghost-like appearance. Even by snail standards, it moves slowly, creeping only a few millimeters or centimeters a week.
• Found in rooms where spacecraft are assembled, this microbial species could potentially contaminate other planets that the spacecraft visits. It can tolerate extreme dryness; wide ranges of pH, temperature and salt concentration; and exposure to UV light or hydrogen peroxide. It was independently collected from so-called clean rooms in Florida and 4,000 kilometers away, in French Guiana.
• This 4-5- centimeter single-celled amoeba from the Mediterranean Sea gathers pieces of silica spicules, which are actually sponge fragments, from its surroundings and uses them like so many Lego blocks to construct a shell. It ends up looking much like a carnivorous sponge as well as feeding like one.
• With longer limbs, a more slender body and larger eyes than others of its species, the leaf-tailed gecko has a mottled coloration along with its extremely wide tail that allows it to blend in with its surroundings. Native to rain forests and rocky habitats in Australia, this gecko waits for prey on the vertical surfaces of rocks and trees.
• Distinguished by the bright orange color it displays when produced in colonies, this fungus – described in a Dutch journal – was named as a tribute to the Dutch royal family, specifically His Royal Highness the Prince of Orange. The newcomer was isolated from soil in Tunisia.
• The skeleton shrimp, the smallest in the genus, was identified from among specimens originally collected from a cave on an island off the coast of Southern California. The new species has an eerie, translucent appearance that makes it resemble a bony structure.
• It is not clear how the ANDRILL sea anemone withstands the harsh conditions under a glacier on the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica. The 2.5-centimeter creatures were discovered when the Antarctic Geological Drilling Program sent a remotely operated submersible vehicle into holes that had been drilled into the ice.
• Beautiful, soft, sword-shaped leaves with white edges and cream-colored flowers with bright orange filaments are the hallmarks of the dragon tree, which can grow to 12 meters in height. It is found in the limestone mountains of Thailand and may also be found in nearby Burma.
• The olinguito resembles a cross between a slinky cat and a wide-eyed teddy bear, and lives in the cloud forests of the Andes mountains in Colombia and Ecuador. It is the first new carnivorous mammal described in the Western Hemisphere in 35 years.
Wheeler is director of the International Institute for Species Exploration, which publishes the annual survey.
“In the 250 years that modern taxonomy has been practiced, we have named fewer than two million of an estimated 10-12 million kinds of plants and animals,” he said.
He notes that species are going extinct at least as fast as they are being discovered, which adds urgency to the task of naming.