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 (IISE). IISE hopes to raise public awareness of the rich, diverse planet we inhabit.
Quentin Wheeler wants to draw your 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.
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.
“…to explore the flora and fauna and make a first pass inventory so that we can make the best conservation priorities moving forward and assure that as much biodiversity is sustained as possible," said Wheeler.
The institute’s planet-wide sampling this year includes a mammal from Ecuador that looks like a cross between a slinky cat and a wide-eyed teddy bear, the Dragon Tree from Thailand with soft, sword-shaped leaves and cream colored flowers, and a sea anemone living under a glacier in Antarctica.
“The anemone’s body is literally embedded in solid ice with its tentacles dangling below into the frigid water and the only way this was seen was by drilling through the ice shelf and then sending down remotely operated submersible little devices that have cameras and could actually explore," he said.
Other creatures new in 2014: A translucent snail from one of the earth’s deepest caves, a tiny see through shrimp and a miniscule wasp with fringed wings.
A new microbe among the top 10 is shrouded in mystery. It turned up in the specially-controlled filtered environment of two rooms where spacecraft are assembled. The so-called clean rooms were some 4,000 kilometers apart.
“…one [clean-room] in French Guiana and one in Florida. And we obviously need to know about them so that we can prevent giving them an outbound ride and contaminating some other sphere that we are visiting in the solar system on the one hand and on the other, it gives us a better idea of the full range of life that we should be looking for on other planets," he said.
Wheeler says each of the 10 million or so new species waiting to be discovered is a piece of Earth’s history and must be documented. He says a baseline of flora and fauna is doable within a few decades, but requires commitment from decision-makers and the public to make it happen.