The mystery of life and ten new species

Opinion by Dr Susan Lawler

The top ten species of 2014 have been released by the International Institute for Species Exploration. They include a snapshot of diversity on our planet, provide an insight into the process of science and inspire us by reminding us that whimsy and wonder still exist in the world.

You can see the official list of the top ten species here but the real information is in the scientific publications that are behind these discoveries. By reading them you will learn that it is not just a matter of describing what an organism looks like. Half of these discoveries included analysis of the genetic material, and many relied on DNA to decide whether species status was warranted.

Although some of these creatures were found during a traditional expedition where scientists went looking, others were found among long held specimens in museums, one was commonly used in horticulture, one was found by accident, and one was found where it should not be: in clean rooms where we build spacecraft.

In some cases these organisms represent not just a new species, but a new genus, and one of them has already has four subspecies. Found on every continent except Asia, their scientific names were inspired by aspects of the creature, by the sponsors of the expedition, by the name of a friend, by the new king of the Netherlands, and even by the story of Peter Pan.

From a tiny microbe to a giant tree, I have chosen to discuss them in order of size. We will start with the smallest, because as Pliny the Elder said 2000 years ago: "Nature is nowhere as great as in its smallest".

Clean room microbe - 1 micron

The clean room microbe comes in at an astonishingly small 1 micron, a single celled bacteria that is so unique it is not just a new species but a new genus. Belonging to the bacterial family Micrococcaceae, which translates as "tiny balls", these single celled organisms are among the hardiest species on earth. They were found in clean rooms in space stations 4000 kms apart: the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida and the Guiana Space Centre in French Guiana.

Although it has only been found in clean rooms, it may be common elsewhere but difficult to isolate. The new genus is called Tersicoccus, or "clean balls".

Clean rooms are kept in a constant low humidity and are sterilised with strong chemicals on a regular basis. The idea is to not allow fungus or other organisms to invade the spacecraft under assembly. However, if we do find a microbe in space, we want to know whether it came from Earth, so it is established practice to sequence the DNA of anything found in a clean room and keep a record of it.

Because these bacteria are so hardy, they may even be the first Earth organisms to colonise space, possibly on the lander Phoenix, which was under construction when these microbes were found and gave the species its name: Tersicoccus phoenicis.

Orange Penicillium - several microns

The second species is a fungus, although it is hard to know the size of an individual as they are usually measured by the size of a colony after 7 days of growth. Penicillium vanoranjei creates colonies in a vibrant orange under certain conditions, so it was named after the new king of the Netherlands, whose title "Prince of Orange" is spelled Prins van Oranje in his native Dutch.

The publication naming this species describes five new species of Penicillium in honour of the Dutch Royal Family. All specimens were found in the Fungal Biodiversity Centre in Utrecht. P. vanoranjei was originally collected in soil from an oak forest in Tunisia, but it took careful DNA analysis and culturing on various media to allow a full description. Interestingly, the authors think this fungus may move from place to place on the back of a mite.

Tinkerbell fairyfly - 250 microns

At 250 microns, or a quarter of a millimetre, the Tinkerbell fairyfly is one of the smallest flying insects known. It is also a completely new genus, and its name comes from the story Peter Pan: Tinkerbella nana is named after the fairy Tinkerbell and Wendy's dog Nana, which is also the feminine of the Greek word for dwarf: nanos.

Actually, the fairyfly is not a fly at all, but a wasp. Collected by sweep net in a tropical rainforest in Costa Rica, it probably makes its living by laying eggs on other insect's eggs.

The original paper describing the species notes that a close relative in the genus Kikiki is the smallest winged insect in the world at 158 microns, and embarks on a fascinating discussion about the limits of size. How small can a wing be and still displace air?

Domed land snail - 2 mm

The 2 millimetre domed land snail, Zospeum tholussum, is almost 10 times larger than Tinkerbella. This snail was found in a Croatian cave during an expedition in 2010. Eight empty shells were found at 743 metres below the surface, and one live specimen was found at 980 metres. Described from these few specimens, and named for its dome like shell (tholus), the authors also used genetic evidence: the COI sequence, or "barcode", is now on the Barcode of Life Database (or BOLD).

Transparent and slow moving, these tiny land snails are blind. They were found in muddy parts of the cave and nothing is known about their lifestyle, except that they are true cave dwellers, adapted for the deep dark places. We call such creatures eutroglobionts.

Skeleton "shrimp" - 3 mm

Another transparent and tiny creature is the skeleton shrimp, also found in a cave on an island off the coast of California. At about 3 mm, these shrimps were discovered not by an expedition, but by a Spanish researcher looking at specimens in a Canadian Museum.

Not actually a shrimp, but an amphipod, Liropus minusculus is nevertheless the smallest member of its genus (hence minusculus) and the first to be found in the northeast Pacific. It has a remarkable appearance, including some fearsome claws that are used to hold onto the female during the sexual act. Have a closer look at its photo (up top) and try not to let that idea give you nightmares.

ANDRILL Anemone - 2.5 cm

We don't often find new species in Antarctica, and even less often living on the underside of an ice shelf, but the ANDRILL sea anemone was a complete surprise. Discovered in 2010 during a test run of an under-ice robot, the scientists had to improvise a suction device just to collect them.

The only sea anemone reported to live on ice, no one knows how they anchor themselves so they can hang upside down on the Ross Ice Shelf. Named after the Antarctic Geological Drilling Program (ANDRILL), Edwardsiella andrillae is a really unique find.

Amoeboid Protist - 4 cm

There aren't really any satisfying common words for the giant carnivorous single celled organisms found on a sea mount in the Mediterranean. Like the anemone, it was named after the organisation that paid for the expedition (OCEANA). Spiculosiphon oceana is one of the largest single celled organisms at 4 cm long. It was described from 2 individuals and a handful of fragments scooped up in some sand by a remote operated vehicle.

These giant amoeboid protists are classified by the glue it uses to cement together its test, or shell. It always uses the spicules of carnivorous sponges, which it carefully selects and arranges to build a sturdy stem topped by a crown of pseudopods which reach out into the water to catch plankton.

When the authors examined the unique organic cement of these protists they found that they contain signifcant amounts of an extremely rare element known as tellurium. The purpose of this is completely unknown, proving that every significant discovery produces yet another mystery.

Leaf-tailed gecko - 20 cm

The Australian representative is a leaf tailed gecko found in the usual way: an expedition to the "lost world" of the Melville Ranges, on Cape York north of Cooktown. This remote location has tall granite boulders covered by rainforest and contains no less than six endemic vertebrate species: 2 skinks, 3 frogs and this gecko, called Saltuarius eximius.

Six individuals were found, always at night sitting vertically on a rock or tree. Their large eyes can be explained by their nocturnal behaviour, the camouflage colouring would protect them from predators, but the large leaf shaped tail remains a mystery: nobody knows what that's for. The name eximius means extraordinary or exquisite.

Olinguito - 35 cm

The olinguito will be a favourite because it is one of us: a mammal. Finding new species of mammals is increasingly rare but obviously it still happens. Like the gecko, these racoon relations are nocturnal forest dwellers. They live high up in the trees of the cloud forests of Central America. But their discovery did not involve an expedition, at least not at first.

A researcher revising the group of mammals known as olingos visited 18 museums around the world and kept finding specimens that were smaller with redder fur. DNA analysis confirmed that not only were these small olingos (olinguito is Spanish for "little olingo") a different species, there are actually four different subspecies of olinguito.

Far from being unknown to humans, olinguitos had already been displayed in zoos. One of them, named "Ringerl" was moved from one zoo to another during the 1960s and 1970s due to her apparent reluctance to mate with other olingos. If only her keepers had known that she belonged to a species that had diverged from olingos 3.5 million years ago.

When the researcher who described the olinguito finally got to the cloud forest it took a native guide to help him spot his first wild specimen. This was the expedition that let him know that olinguitos are still alive in the wild, a sort of after the fact discovery process.

The scientific name chosen comes from the Spanish word for fog or mist: B. neblina.

Kaweesak's Dragon tree - 12 m

The last and largest species in the top ten is a Kaweesak's Dragon tree from Thailand. Far from being cryptic, these massive trees grow up to 12 metres tall and have a crown diameter of 12 metres.

Growing on limestone hills and mountains, these trees have long been valued as horticultural specimens. It took an expert to spot the differences that distinguished this species from other local Dragon trees. One of the co-authors of the paper, Toi Keeratkiat Kaweesak, was honoured by his colleagues by naming this species after him.

The conservation status of the tree Dracaena kaweesakii is uncertain, as their limestone habitat is used in the manufacture of concrete, but many populations grow near Buddhist temples where they are protected by the monks.

The beauty of these trees and their relationship with monks highlights the interaction between our selves and other species. For the taxonomists who find and describe them, new species often represent a lifetime of work and a labour of love.

What they mean to the rest of us will depend on our cultural connections, our compassion and our curiosity. The top ten species list is designed to spark all of these in us, and I think they have the capacity to do just that.

This article was originally published on The Conversation on 22 May 2014.

Dr Susan Lawler is the Head of Department of Environmental Management and Ecology at La Trobe University in Albury-Wodonga. She writes a regular blog for The Conversation entitled This thing called life.

Image credits

Skeleton shrimp - SINC (Servicio de Informacion y Noticias CientÌficas) and J.M. Guerra-García
Orange Penicillium - Cobus M. Visagie
Tinkerbell fairyfly - Jennifer Read
ANDRILL Anemone - SCINI
Amoeboid Protist - Manuel Maldonado
Leaf-tailed gecko Conrad Hoskin
Olinguito - Mark Gurney (CC BY 3.0)
Kaweesak's Dragon Tree - Paul Wilkin

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