Life

Incredible Creatures: New species discovered in 2017

John Gavloski

 
A pink katydid from Borneo is one of many newly discovered species. (PETER KIRK)

A pink katydid from Borneo is one of many newly discovered species. (PETER KIRK)

Need a new year’s challenge? There are still a lot of animals and plants remaining to be discovered. Each year we learn more about the planet and the many animals and plants we share it with. In the past year there have been many new species described. In keeping with what seems to be a New Year’s trend, it seems fitting to produce another top 10 from the past year list. In this month’s Incredible Creatures we will explore some of the new species discovered over the past year, some of which are quite amazing creatures.

Mammals

1. Humboldt’s Flying Squirrel (Glaucomys oregonensis): The discovery of this new species brings the number of species of flying squirrels in North America to three (the other species are the northern flying squirrel and the southern flying squirrel). Humboldt’s flying squirrels are found in coniferous and mixed coniferous forests from southern British Columbia to southern California. Recent genetic testing has found this flying squirrel to be a distinct species. They look similar to the northern flying squirrel, but Humboldt’s flying squirrels are generally smaller and darker. Flying squirrels don’t actually fly like bats or birds. Instead they glide from tree to tree by extending furred membranes of skin that stretch from the wrists of their forearms to the ankle on the hind leg. Their feather-like tail provides extra lift and also aids in steering. They are capable of gliding for up to 100 meters and can make sharp, mid-air turns. These aerial feats are even more remarkable given that flying squirrels often have to navigate through dense forest in the darkness of night. The only species of flying squirrel in Manitoba is the northern flying squirrel.

2. Skywalker hoolock gibbon (Hoolock tianxing): These gibbons live tucked away in the isolated mountains of Myanmar and southwestern China. Although only recently discovered, they are already on the brink of being lost, and are classified as endangered. They face the same risks to their survival as many other small ape species in southern China and Southeast Asia due to habitat loss and hunting. The Star Wars-inspired name reflects the high treetop home of these gibbons, and the historical Chinese view of them as almost mystical beings. These gibbons have downturned white eyebrows.

3. Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis): Scientists found a population of about 800 of this orangutan in the forests of northern Sumatra in Indonesia. This is one of 3 species of orangutan (the others being the Sumatran orangutan and the Bornean orangutan), and the rarest of the great apes. Although this isolated population of orangutans has been known for awhile, it is only through recent genetic testing that it was identified as a distinct species in 2017. It was immediately classified as an animal that is critically endangered. Orangutans are unique amongst the great apes as they are largely arboreal, which means that they spend most of their time high up in the trees rather than living predominantly on the ground.

Fish

4. Hoodwinker ocean sunfish (Mola tecta): This is not your average sunfish. They weigh 2 tons, and have a bizarre, flattened body. Researchers first learned of them in 2009, but the fish continued to evade them for years, despite their massive size. The Latin word tectus, from its scientific name, means hidden. Since the discovery of this species, the research team has located the hoodwinker sunfish in New Zealand, off Tasmania, south Australia, South Africa, and southern Chile, suggesting the species range might be in colder parts of the Southern Hemisphere.

Crustaceans

5. Green-eyed hermit crab (Paragiopagurus atkinsonae): These crabs were discovered off the South African coast. They have green eyes, as you may have guessed from the name, and have a living shell composed of anemones held together by sand. This crab was actually first spotted in 2012, but much like the hoodwinker ocean sunfish it took several years to properly identify it.

6. Pink Floyd shrimp (Synalpheus pinkfloydi): It’s not every day that a new animal species is given the same name as a rock group. This newly discovered shrimp has a bright pink claw. The sound it makes by snapping the claw shut reaches 210 decibels, and can kill nearby small fish. This new species was discovered on the Pacific coast of Panama.

Plants

7. A plant that does not need photosynthesis (Sciaphila sugimotoi): On the Japanese island of Ishigaki, researchers have identified a previously undescribed species of parasitic plant, named Sciaphila sugimotoi, that feeds on the roots of fungi, rather than performing photosynthesis on its own. While such parasitic plants live most of their lives underground, making them hard to find, they appear above the soil when fruiting or flowering. The discovery of species such as this reveals the existence of a rich habitat beneath the forest floor, including a fungal network that cannot be seen by the naked eye.

Insects and spiders

8. Tales from the crypt, meet the crypt-keeper wasp (Euderus set): WARNING: If you are a claustrophobe, afraid of being stuck inside of a tight tunnel with no room to move, all the while having your insides eaten out, you may find the rest of this paragraph disturbing. This interesting wasp was discovered in the southeastern U.S. A list of traits of this wasp would include stealth, assassination and impersonation. They lay their eggs in tiny, wooden chambers (called galls) that another parasitic wasp species, the crypt gall wasp (Bassettia pallida), made in live oak trees and also laid their eggs. Once the egg hatches, the crypt-keeper larva burrows into the other wasp and takes over its mind, forcing it to start tunneling through the tree’s bark to freedom, something the crypt-keeper struggles to do on its own. The larva then forces its victim to drill a hole too small for its own escape. Once the larger gall wasp is wedged in the opening it’s created, the crypt-keeper consumes its host from the inside out, finally emerging from the gall wasps forehead out into the world. Adult crypt keeper wasps are quite colourful; metallic green to turquoise to iridescent blue, depending on age. They have now been found in Florida, Georgia, Mississippi and Louisiana.

9. A Rose-tinted katydid (Eulophophyllum kirki): This katydid does not yet have a common name, and the scientific publication that describes it actually came out in December 2016, but it is so cool I added it to the list. These katydids (Figure 1) use their incredibly mimicry to blend in with the foliage where they live. The males are a more standard green, while the females are a resplendent pink, with green lines that look like leaf veins. They are found in forested areas of Borneo.

10. A blue tarantula (Ischnocolinae): In just one month, researchers conducting an ecological survey in Guyana (in South America) found more than 30 new species. One of the more compelling findings was a blue tarantula. While placing a species name on the tarantula is still ongoing, the biologist who discovered it suspects this blue tarantula is a communal species of a sub-family of spiders known as Ischnocolinae that like to hide in holes. In addition to the tarantula, the researchers also found six new species of fish, three plants, 15 water beetles, frogs, and several dragonflies, all new to science.

It has actually been a good year for new spider discoveries. More than 50 species of spiders were discovered by scientists on a 10-day trip to Cape York in northern Australia this year.

So I hope 2018 is a good year for everyone, full of new discoveries and excitement. And if any of your new years resolutions are proving less practical than anticipated, resolve to enjoy and appreciate the many creatures that we share the planet with.

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Incredible Creatures is a monthly contribution to provide information on some of the common yet often not well known creatures that we share space with in Manitoba and abroad. John Gavloski is an entomologist living in Carman.