What do a jelly fish that looks like a box kite, a parasitic wasp that lays her eggs in ants and a night-blooming orchid have in common?
They're among the newly discovered species described in 2011 and singled out for the annual Top Ten New Species List by an international team of experts.
The International Institute for Species Exploration at Arizona State University publishes the annual list. Director Quentin Wheeler says it helps put in focus the threats to biodiversity around the planet.
“We know that habitats are being altered and lost at a significant pace. But, until we complete an inventory of species and map their distribution in the biosphere, we simply won’t have an empirical basis on which to really know when the alarm bells go off.”
The Institute’s global sampling of new species includes a sponge-like mushroom from the island of Borneo, a 1.5 meter-tall yellow poppy that grows at high elevations in Nepal, an iridescent hairy blue tarantula from Brazil and a giant millipede from Tanzania.
Wheeler says one of the most interesting species listed in 2012 is the so-called Devil’s worm from South Africa. “It showed up in a bore hole in a very deep mine, almost a mile (1.6 kilometers) deep. And no one had any idea that a multicellular organism might be living down there.”
Only a couple of dozen mammals are described each year. Included is a sneezing monkey with black fur and a white beard, found, Wheeler says, by scientists conducting a survey of gibbons in the mountains of Myanmar.
“And sure enough, if you go out in the rain you can hear these poor guys sneezing. They have a very open nasal cavity. So rain gets in there very easily and prompts them to sneeze. And reportedly they sit in the rain and tuck their head down between their knees, trying to protect that.”
Since the early 18th century, when a system was devised to categorize all known varieties of plants and animals, about two million species have been named, described and classified. 18,000 are added each year. Wheeler says, while that may seem a lot, there may be as many 10 million additional species of plants and animals awaiting discovery.
Wheeler says baseline data is needed to monitor and respond to changes in biodiversity. He adds that scientists have only begun to scratch the surface to understand the many ways organisms can adapt to their environment.
“And by studying their adaptations we get so many clever ideas for design and for engineering our way through sustainable solutions to the environmental problems we face. To truly understand our place in the natural world we really need to study all of our relatives and get the big picture of evolution.”
Wheeler is one of an international team of scientists, engineers and scholars that has designed a plan that would use powerful computers to catalog 10 million species over the next 50 years. He says the project is a necessary step to sustain the planet's biodiveristy.