Many species, such as the Tapanuli orangutan, the Micro Chameleon and the olinguito were discovered in recent years. Interestingly, some species that went extinct millions of years ago were also discovered in the last decade. However, most of these newly discovered species are under severe threat.
While reading an article on wildlife conservation the other day, I mused on what an amazing world we live in! To share space with some of the world’s most beautiful and unique beings—elephants, toucans, blue whales, and coral snakes—is nothing less than a dream, one that just keeps getting better and better.
On the other hand, while our planet is brimming with biodiversity, we actually know very little about who we share space with and how. In fact, we don’t even know how many different species there are on Earth!
Humans have been classifying species based on their taxonomy for over 250 years. So far, we have catalogued over 1.2 million species, but a study suggests that at least 86% of species on Earth and 91% of species in the ocean have yet to be described. What this means is that there are many species still out there just waiting to be discovered!
Over the past few decades, science and technology have progressed a great deal. This, in turn, has made identifying species and classifying them much easier. However, at the end of the day, countless hours are still spent conducting field studies and collecting samples. This is then followed by hours of lab work, data analysis and research before a species can be identified as new and proudly presented to the world. Nevertheless, these efforts take us one step closer to documenting the full range of diversity of the life on Earth.
Over the last decade, we have made quite a few interesting discoveries. Let’s take a look at some of the most notable species that were discovered between 2010-2020.
Micro Chameleon (Brookesia micra): 2012
Scientists discovered four new chameleon species in Madagascar, all of which were extremely tiny in size. Among these four species, Brookesia micra was the smallest. It is about 1.14 inches long and is the world’s smallest chameleon. This species is found only on the island of Nosy Hara in Madagascar and usually lives on the forest floor.
This miniature chameleon exemplifies a phenomenon known as island dwarfism, wherein species restricted to islands evolve into miniature versions of their cousins found on the mainland. This is mostly driven by the limited resources found on islands. Unfortunately, the habitat of this species is threatened by deforestation, as it lacks governmental protection.
Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis): 2013
In the past, only two orangutan species were known—the Sumatran orangutan and the Bornean orangutan. However, recently, scientists discovered a new species, the Tapanuli orangutan. This orangutan species is only found in small numbers in forest fragments of central, northern and southern Tapanuli, Indonesia. There are less than 800 individuals in the world, and among the three orangutan species, they are the lowest in number.
Due to their geographic isolation and small population size, the Tapanuli orangutan is at high risk for extinction, so conservation is a major concern. Moreover, their habitats are rapidly being altered by road construction, illegal forest clearance and hydroelectric development projects.
Purple fairy wrasse (Cirrhilabrus Wakanda): 2019
The purple fairy wrasse was discovered only recently because of its remote distribution and preference for mesophotic coral ecosystems. This fish is found only along the east coast of Zanzibar, Tanzania. It is about 6 cm in length and inhabits deep shelves between 50-80 m in depth. Researchers had to use special equipment to observe this fish in its natural habitat, which is relatively unexplored and out of reach by recreational divers.
Dinizia jueirana-facao: 2017
I hope you didn’t think that only mammals and fish were discovered in the last decade, because the discovery of new species between 2010 and 2020 was not limited to the animal kingdom, but also extended to the realm of plants!
Dinizia jueirana-facao is an emergent tree that occurs in semi-deciduous forests. It grows at elevations of 40-150 m above sea level and is found in only two locations in Brazil. This tree is gigantic, growing up to 130 feet and weighing around 62 tons.
To date, only ~25 individuals have been counted in the wild, 12 of which are found within a natural reserve. This species is Critically Endangered, as its population is extremely small and restricted. More importantly, the few individuals found outside the reserve are currently threatened by human activities, such as agriculture expansion, livestock rearing and mining.
The olinguito (Bassaricyon neblina): 2013
This species belongs to the raccoon family and is endemic to the cloud forests of Ecuador and Colombia. It is found at elevations ranging from 5000m to 9000 m above sea level. It is about 14 inches in length, weighs around 2 pounds, has orange-brown woolly fur, and large eyes. The Olinguito is nocturnal and is a solitary animal. The species reproduces slowly, with females generally producing only one offspring at a time.
Extinct marsupial lion (Wakaleo schouteni): 2017
As it turns out, scientists are not only discovering new species that are present (and alive) on Earth today, but also some that went extinct millions of years ago!
Australian scientists discovered a new species of marsupial lion from fossilized remains. This animal was no bigger than a dog and weighed a little over 20 kgs. It is said to have existed 18 to 26 million years ago and was supposedly found in rainforests. However, there is still much left to be learnt about this species and its habitat.
Scientists are discovering new species all the time with the help of technology and a renewed interest in conservation and preservation of wildlife on our planet. With the start of this new decade, I wonder what other exciting discoveries are in store for us!