Last year, an astonishing 18,000 species were newly described in scientific literature. The SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry's (ESF) International Institute for Species Exploration (IISE) has scoured through all of them, choosing the top 10 most exciting additions to the 8.7 million known species of life on Earth.
Olinguito (Bassaricyon neblina)
Image credit: Mark Gurney via Wikimedia Commons
It’s no surprise that the olinguito topped the list. Weighing in at 0.9 kilograms (2 pounds), this is the smallest member of the raccoon family, and it looks like a cross between a cat and teddy bear. In fact, shortly after the discovery was announced, The Oatmeal offered up an explanation for the animal’s origins. How did this bundle of cuteness go unnoticed for so long? Well, it actually didn’t. Olinguitos had been mis-identified as olingos, a close cousin, for over a century. One female olinguito had been placed into a breeding program for a network of zoos, but (perhaps not so surprisingly) was unsuccessful with mating with the olingos.
This is the first new species in the Carnivora order to be discovered in the Americas since the 1970s. They are endemic to the Andes in Colombia and Ecuador, and live high up in the forests. The foggy conditions make it hard to study this area. Olinguitos are omnivorous frugivores who primarily dine on figs, though they will eat insects and nectar as well.
Kaweesak’s Dragon Tree (Dracaena kaweesakii)
Image credit: Wilkin et al.
This tree grows up to 12 meters (40 feet) fall and produces small flowers with beautiful cream-colored petals and bright orange stamens. Its branches are fairly thin and appear somewhat tangled. At the end of the branch, it has clusters of long, thin, blade-like leaves. It is endemic to the limestone mountains in Thailand.
Even though the tree was just discovered, its conservation is of immediate concern and it is already categorized as endangered. There are likely only about 2,500 of these trees, which is an incredibly small number for a plant. Additionally, the limestone in the mountains where they live are mined to be used in concrete, putting it in imminent danger of habitat destruction.
ANDRILL Anemone (Edwardsiella andrillae)
This species of anemone is one tough cookie. It was located under the Ross Ice Shelf, which is the largest ice shelf in Antarctica. Their existence was revealed after the Antarctic Geological Drilling Program (ANDRILL) deployed a submersible vehicle. They are quite small, at less than 2.5 cm (1 inch) in length and have about two dozen tentacles. Most of their body is embedded in the underside of the ice shelf, though their tentacles hang in the water to catch food. Their diet isn’t known, though it is assumed to be plankton.
The ANDRILL folks were quite surprised to find it, as they were unaware there was any life under the ice shelf. This is the first anemone species known to burrow into the ice, and researchers aren’t quite sure how they manage to get themselves in there. There are other factors of these extremophiles that need to be properly researched, such as their method of reproduction and the cellular mechanisms that prevent them from freezing while being lodged in the ice.
Skeleton Shrimp (Liropus minusculus)
Image credit: José M. Guerra-García
This translucent crustacean is the smallest in its genus, reaching only 3.3 mm (0.12 inches) in length. They were discovered in an underwater cave 9 meters (30 feet) below the surface off the coast of southern California. Despite the nickname of “skeleton shrimp,” L. minusculus is not actually a shrimp at all. It is a caprellid amphipod; a family of small crustaceans that are long as slim, which many believe resembles a skeleton.
Other members of the Liropus genus live on rocks in shallow coastal waters. This is also the first species of skeleton shrimp to be discovered so far North.
Orange Penicillium (Penicillium vanoranjei)
Image credit: Visagie et al.
This fungus was named for Dutch royalty: Willem-Alexander Claus George Ferdinand, His Royal Highness the Prince of Orange (in Dutch, orange = oranje). This is partially due to the appearance of the colonies, which are not only bright orange in color, but grow in circles with lines that appear like segmented fruit. The fungus was located in a soil sample from Tunisia.
Researchers also discovered that P. vanoranjei will grow an extracellular matrix that umbrellas the entire colony. While it isn’t entirely clear what the purpose of this coating is, researchers speculate that it protects the fungus during times of drought.
Leaf-Tailed Gecko (Saltuarius eximius)
Image credit: Conrad Hoskin
This gecko excels at camouflage, as it has a broad tail that resembles a leaf. It was discovered in Australia and had been isolated for millions of years on top of the plateau of the rainforest in Cape Melville. When the researchers discovered the gecko, they also discovered a skink and frog that had never before been discovered as well.
The nocturnal gecko lives among boulders. At night, it patiently waits out its prey, remaining completely motionless until a meal happens to come by. During the day, the geckos retreat between the rocks. It’s mottled appearance and slender limbs and body allow it to easily navigate the terrain. They also have relatively large eyes, allowing them to take in more light during the night.
Amoeboid Protist (Spiculosiphon oceana)
Image credit: Manuel Maldonado et al.
This 5-centimeter-long single-celled organism was discovered in an underwater cave 50 kilometers (30 miles) off the coast of Spain in the Mediterranean Sea. It has a long, slender body with a bulb-like end. The bulb is covered in silica filaments, which are actually tiny pieces of dead sponge. These fragments are sort of glued on using proteins and they offer protection for the organism, kind of like putting on a suit of armor. It also mimics sponges in its carnivorous behavior.
The organism was discovered by Oceana, a nonprofit group dedicated to ocean conservation. The species name was done in honor of the group.
Clean Room Microbes (Tersicoccus phoenicis)
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Of all of the species on this list, this one might be the one that researchers didn’t want to find. This microbe was found in two different clean rooms where spacecraft are assembled. One clean room was in Florida, while the other was 2,500 miles away in South America. Though these rooms are aimed to be completely devoid of microbial life, microbiologists test the rooms anyway, just to be sure. Contamination is rare, but it does happen.
The most amazing part of this bacterium is that it was actually able to survive. The conditions that were meant to eliminate microbial life in these rooms have inadvertently selected for an incredibly resilient species that is able to survive heat, peroxide, drying, harsh UV light, and no food. T. phoenicis is so different from any sample previously discovered, it even belongs to its own genus.
Tinkerbell Fairyfly (Tinkerbella nana)
Image credit: John Huber and John Noyes
Researchers discovered the incredibly tiny fairyfly Tinkerbella nana in Costa Rica. It is astounding that this creature was ever discovered, as it is only 250 micrometers long. It is only 2.5 times as wide as a human hair. The scientists responsible for the discovery said that locating this tiny arthropod was “possibly equivalent to finding a solitary needle in 200 haystacks.”
This fairy fly is the sole member of its quite appropriately-named genus, Tinkerbella, named after the fairy Tinkerbell from Peter Pan. The species name “nana” continues the Peter Pan theme and reflects the name of Wendy, Michael, and John’s dog, Nana. It is also a nod to “nanos” which is Latin for “small,” which is a perfect description for its diminutive size.
Domed Land Snail (Zospeum tholussum)
Image credit: J. Bedek; Alexander M. Weigand via Wikimedia Commons
The Lukina Jama–Trojama in Croatia is one of the deepest cave systems in the world. At 980 meters below the surface, researchers discovered the domed land snail. Only one live specimen was found. Snails are not known for being very speedy, but even with that in mind, these guys are incredibly slow. Over the course of a week, they typically only travel a couple centimeters, if that. The snails likely have to hitch a ride on another organism or in water when traveling large distances, but they do require air to breathe.
These snails are incredibly tiny, with their shells only reaching 1.41-1.81 millimeters in length. Fresh shells are largely transparent, though they become more opaque as time goes on. Due to their home down in pitch-black caves, these snails are completely blind. They are also lacking teeth and their diet has not been determined.
Want to see more amazing species discovered last year, like the bamboo shark, legless lizards, or Carolina hammerhead shark? Check out the list of some of our favorite species discovered in 2013.
View SUNY-ESF 2014 Top 10 New Species in a larger map
[Hat tip: SUNY-ESF Top 10 New Species 2014]