From a cartwheeling spider and a bird-like dinosaur to a fish that makes beautiful circles on the seafloor, these curious creatures made the annual list created by an international committee of taxonomists.
Every year since 2008, a team of taxonomists from SUNY’s Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) International Institute for Species Exploration (IISE) have been pouring over the previous year’s new species discoveries to select their favorite 10 for an annual shout-out. And while news of species going extinct sadly dominates the headlines, it’s heartening to know that every year, approximately 18,000 new species are discovered. And among those many thousands are some truly spectacular plants and critters.
"The last vast unexplored frontier on Earth is the biosphere. We have only begun to explore the astonishing origin, history, and diversity of life," says Dr. Quentin Wheeler, ESF president and founding director of the IISE.
Scientists think that we still have 10 million species to discover, five times more than we already know. It's a profound thought to ponder; while it doesn't mean there are actually more species out there, it's certainly a humbling thing for us know-it-all homo sapiens to consider.
"An inventory of plants and animals begun in the 18th century continues apace with the discovery of about 18,000 additional species each year. The nearly 2 million species named to date represent a small fraction of an estimated 12 million. Among the remaining 10 million are irreplaceable clues to our own origins, a detailed blueprint of how the biosphere self-organized, and precious clues to better, more efficient, and more sustainable ways to meet human needs while conserving wild living things. It is time to mount a mission to planet Earth to distinguish, describe, name and classify its life-forms before it is too late. The Top 10 is a reminder of the wonders awaiting us," Wheeler says.
Right on. And without further ado, the who’s who of wonders:
1. Feathered Dinosaur: Anzu wyliei (U.S.)
© Illustration: Mark A. Klingler, Carnegie Museum of Natural History
Well hello, bird dragon thing. With its motley mix of bird and dinosaur features, Anzu wyliei
is from a bird-like group of dinosaurs that lived in North America some 66 million years ago. It was 10-feet long and 5-feet tall; ostrich meets Godzilla. A contemporary of the more famous T. rex
, A. wyliei
was a nest builder and roosted until its eggs hatched; other avian characteristics included feathers, hollow bones and a parrot-like beak. Three well-preserved partial skeletons were discovered in North and South Dakota, in the (appropriately-named) Hell Creek Formation.
2. Coral Plant: Balanophora coralliformis (Philippines)
© P.B. Pelser & J.F. Barcelona/IISE + ESF
This parasitic plant might have passed us right by; although we’ve only just discovered it, it’s already considered critically endangered. With its long, repeating branches and aboveground tubers, this plant does not contain chlorophyll and is incapable of photosynthesis, and thus derives its nutrition from other living plants. So far, only 50 plants of the species have been found.
3. Cartwheeling Spider: Cebrennus rechenbergi (Morocco)
© Prof. Dr. Ingo Rechenberg/Technical University Berlin
This desert-dwelling acrobatic arachnid cartwheels its way out of threatening situations, clever thing. When faced with danger, C. rechenbergi
first assumes a fierce posture, and if that doesn’t work, the entertainer starts to run and turn cartwheels, which must be rather surprising to the predator. Especially since the spider cartwheels in the direction of, not away from, the threat. In the barren desert called home, there’s no place to run to hide, so it’s gymnastics or die. The agile spider’s behavior has already inspired a biomimetic robot that can similarly walk or roll.
4. The X-Phyla: Dendrogramma enigmatica (Australia)
© Jørgen Olesen/IISE + ESF
Not only is it a new species, but D. enigmatica
and a second new species, D. discoids
, could comprise an entirely new phylum. These multicellular animals – found deep on the sea floor off Point Hicks, Victoria – look like mushrooms and could be related to the phylum Cnidaria (jellyfish, corals, sea anemones and hydras) or Ctenophora (comb jellies) or both, but the new animals lack evolutionary novelties unique to either. The mystery surrounding this animal accounts for its name, and its relationships are likely to remain enigmatic until specimens can be collected suitable for DNA analysis, notes the listing.
5. Bone-house Wasp: Deuteragenia ossarium (China)
© Michael Staab/IISE + ESF
“Mom Bug of the Year” award goes to this conniving wasp whose gory egg-laying scheme is tops for baby. She makes a nest in a hollow stem with consecutive “rooms” divided by soil walls; after laying an egg, she kills a spider and places it in the next room for baby to eat when its hungry, alternating egg and dead-spider rooms until she gets to the last room. And then, the icing on the cake: She fills the last vestibule with up to 13 bodies of dead ants, which creates a chemical camouflage by way of volatile chemicals, throwing predators that hunt wasp larvae by scent off the trail. Nothing like a mother's love.
6. Indonesian Frog: Limnonectes larvaepartus (Indonesia)
© Jimmy A. McGuire/IISE + ESF
This little frog is less than 2 inches and is fanged (fanged!), but what makes L. larvaepartus
special is that it does something very unfroggy: it gives birth to live tadpoles rather than eggs. Fewer than a dozen of the world's 6,455 frog species have internal fertilization and all except this new species lay fertilized eggs or give birth to tiny froglets, notes the list. But not L. larvaepartus
7. Walking Stick: Phryganistria tamdaoensis (Vietnam)
© Jonathan Brecko/IISE + ESF
Walking sticks may be one of Mother Nature’s cleverest masters of disguise; few things are cooler than a bug that looks exactly like a twig, adaptation is pure genius. While P. tamdaeoensis
– at an impressive 9 inches in length – is not the longest in the world, it is nonetheless compelling evidence, the listers say, that, in spite of their size, more giant sticks remain to be discovered and we have a lot more to learn about insects that look like plant parts. And who knows, maybe one day we’ll discover a walking stick that breaks the current record – an honor held by Chan's megastick (Phobaeticus chani
) with the disconcerting length of 22 inches (567 mm).
8. Sea Slug: Phyllodesmium acanthorhinum (Japan)
© Robert Bolland/IISE + ESF
While P. acanthorhinum
could have been nominated for looks alone, it’s the creature's status as "missing link" that earned it a place in the list. P. acanthorhinum
completes the chain between sea slugs that feed on hydroids and those specializing on corals. This super photogenic gastropod shows up in shades of blue, red and gold – although rather petite, measuring in at merely an inch long.
9. Bromeliad: Tillandsia religiosa (Mexico)
© A. Espejo/IISE and ESF
We all know of poinsettias and Christmas cactus, but in Sierra de Tepoztlán, Tlayacapan, San José de los Laureles, and Tepoztlán, a comely bromeliad plant is often included in elaborate Christmas displays. And well it should be, what with its pretty rose-colored spikes and flat green leaves. Growing up to 5-feet tall, these stemless, solitary plants are found on cliffs and vertical walls in deciduous, coniferous, oak and cloud forests where they flower from December to March. But while long loved by locals, it was unknown to science until just last year – which is really kind of beautiful.
10. Pufferfish: Torquigener albomaculosus (Japan)
© Yoji Okata
Well of course T. albomaculosus
made the list! The discovery of this pufferfish includes the solving of a 20-year-old mystery in which everyone was wondering why there seems to be crop circles on the seafloor. We have T. albomaculosus
to thank for the intricate under-the-sea circles with geometric designs which are about six feet (2 meters) in diameter. Males make these beautiful patterns as spawning nests by swimming and wriggling in the seafloor sand. The reason? To attract females, of course – this is the animal world, after all, and nothing says "let's have babies" like the presentation of a perfect nest.