What is Science Finding - and Losing - in New Species of Animals, Plants, Insects?

May 23, 2017

The Top Ten list of New Species is out from the Institute for Species Exploration.  The SUNY E-S-F program shows how making new discoveries of animals, insects and plants is critical before they become extinct.  The list comes out on the birthday of Carolus Linnaeus, an 18th century Swedish botanist who's considered the father of taxonomy, the science of identifying and naming species.  

When you look at some bug in the garden... or spy a bird on a tree branch ... or come across a flower you’ve never seen before – it could be a new species.  SUNY Environmental Science and Forestry President Quentin Wheeler is announcing the Top Ten new species for this year to boost the field of taxonomy.  And people who aren’t scientists find many of the 1800-or-so new species identified each year.

“Sometimes they have more leisure time and are able to spend more time in the field.  And some amateurs work at very high levels of excellence.  The other interesting trend in recent years is social media, new species recognized from photographs posted on Flickr or some other social media site.”

This year’s list includes a small spider found in India...Eriovixia gryffindori.  The Harry Potter reference is intended.

“If you look at the photograph of that, that is a weird-shaped abdomen on that spider.  It does look like a wizard’s hat, even the little bend at the tip of it.  And it is tiny, and it is brown and seeing it at all is a feat, because it would blend right in.”

Others on the list include a marine worm that looks like a churro at the state fair; and an Australian plant that appears to bleed.  A Stingray from Brazil is a pretty big animal to go unnamed until now.

“Almost certainly local fisherman had seen it.  But apparently no scientist who knew all the species of stingrays had seen it.  When we say new, we mean new to science.  It may be well-known to local populations.”

The list also includes an orchid with a face like the devil, a 4-inch millipede with 400 legs, and a camouflage pink-and-green katydid.


Wheeler says it’s a race against time to identify species as more and more become extinct...and we lose their possible lessons.

“It’s clear now we need to create a more sustainable future.  We need renewable energy sources; we need new materials that don’t add to the solid waste flow and so forth.  Our best hope of creating new products and new processes and new designs and materials is in the emerging field of biomimicry, where we look at how nature has solved these problems and try to mimic that.  So every species that goes extinct takes with it some unique insight, some clue about things we might do better.”


He notes climate change is only hastening those extinctions...threatening much more dire impacts on species diversity than on man.

“As catastrophic as climate change might be to our social structures, our coastal cities, our agriculture and so forth, all those problems could be worked through, now at great pain and enormous expense, and it’s almost unthinkable.  The loss of biodiversity, on the other hand, we know from the geologic record, will take tens of millions of years to recover. So the consequences of this are huge.”

Wheeler’s urgency follows from one simple fact.  Over the past decade, the Institute for Species Exploration has chronicled 200-thousand new species...but he says during that time, even more have gone extinct.