5 Rediscovered Species That Made Headlines In 2017

Carlos Vasquez Almazan
Carlos Vasquez Almazan

We all thought they might be goners. Some of 2017’s best feel-good stories involved the sudden, dramatic reappearances of ultra-rare animals. One long-lost salamander crawled past a park ranger. In Australia, a little marsupial made a huge splash. And a husband/wife team identified a moth species which hadn’t been seen since the Gilded Age. Here are five thought-to-be-extinct species that were rediscovered in 2017.

1. ORIENTAL BLUE CLEARWING

Photo of the Oriental Blue Clearwing
Marta Skowron Volponi

Sometimes, the best defense is a great disguise. The oriental blue clearwing is a Malaysian moth that resembles a few of the bees and wasps in its native area. To pass itself off as a stinging insect, the creature’s evolved a bee-like color pattern. It also makes an ominous buzzing noise while flying. The species first came to scientific light in 1887, when a dead specimen was collected and shipped off to the Natural History Museum in Vienna. For 130 years, no other specimens—living or deceased—were reported. As such, scientists had no way of knowing if the oriental blue clearwing had succumbed to extinction. But now, the mystery has been put to rest.    

Marta Skowron Viloponi is a Polish entomologist (“insect expert”) at the University of Gdansk. Between 2013 and 2017, she and her husband, Paolo, photographed a handful of live oriental blue clearwings in southern Malaysia. After a DNA test confirmed that they had, indeed, rediscovered this long-lost species, the Viloponis announced their big find to the world in a paper published on November 24, 2017.

2. VANZOLINI'S BALD-FACED SAKI

A rare, New World monkey, the Vanzolini's bald-faced saki monkey is exceptionally good at playing hide and seek. Scientists first identified the dark-haired species in 1936, then it fell off our collective radar. While some dead specimens turned up in 1956, no confirmed sightings of a live monkey were made until this past February.

Ten months ago, a team set out to find proof of the Vanzolini's bald-faced saki's continued existence. Included in the quest were seven primatologists, multiple guides, some photographers, and even a couple of drone operators. Using a two-story houseboat as their mobile base of operations, the crew traveled through the Amazon basin. Their efforts were rewarded with multiple saki encounters along the Juruá, Tarauacá, and Liberdade Rivers. Unfortunately, the team was also reminded of the manmade challenges facing this species: There’s an abundance of logging sites within the animal’s current range and some local communities harvest monkey meat on a regular basis. As primatologist Laura Marsh, who headed the expedition, put it, “if no further controls on hunting and forest clearing are put into place… the saki’s conservation status may become critical.”

3. CREST-TAILED MULGARA

An illustration of the Crest-tailed Mulgara
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Like many Australian critters, crest-tailed mulgaras have suffered at the hands of invasive animals. The tiny, rodent-like marsupials are now at the mercy of cats, foxes, and other introduced species. Fossil evidence tells us that the mulgaras used to be a common sight Down Under, but those foreign mammals really drove their numbers down. Although a living population is at large in the state of South Australia, it was assumed that the creature must’ve long-since died out in neighboring New South Wales.

Happily, this isn’t the case. On December 15, the University of New South Wales, Sydney sent out a press release confirming that—for the first time in recorded history—a crest-tailed mulgara had been found within state lines. Specifically, a lone female was caught in Sturt National Park by a research team affiliated with the school. After taking some measurements, the scientists set her free.

4. JACKSON’S CLIMBING SALAMANDER

Jackson's climbing salamander
Carlos Vasquez Almazan

During a 1975 expedition into the forests of Guatemala, herpetologists Paul Elias and Jeremy Jackson discovered three then-unknown salamander species. One of these, the Jackson’s climbing salamander, was a vibrant yellow creature whose appearance earned it the nickname “golden wonder.” Yet, eye-catching as it is, the animal has proven quite elusive. In fact, after Jackson and Elias identified the critter in ’75, nobody would see one again for another 42 years. The situation looked especially hopeless in 2014, when Jackson and Elias themselves went on a follow-up trip through the same area. Though they carefully retraced the steps they’d taken decades earlier, not a single “golden wonder” was spotted this time.

Then along came a park ranger on a lunch break. In 2015, an international group known as Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC) helped establish the Finca San Isidro Amphibian Reserve in western Guatemala. Earlier this year, one of the rangers there—27-year old Ramos León-Tomás—was taking a break when he noticed an attractive yellow salamander. He photographed it and sent the pictures off to herpetologist Carlos Vasquez for identification. Sure enough, it was a Jackson’s climbing salamander. According to CBS Miami, León-Tomás “hopes the historic find will bring added recognition and pay for the guards at the reserve.”

5. TÁCHIRA ANTPITTA

Táchira Antpitta
Jhonathan Miranda

For the record, that’s pronounced “TAH-chee-rah ant-pit-ah.” It’s a little brown songbird named after a state in Venezuela. In 1955 and 1956, ornithologists discovered this species near the country’s Colombian border, and that’s the last anyone saw of it for a long while. Because no other sightings or encounters were announced over the following six decades, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) labeled the Táchira antpitta “critically endangered.”

This year, though, we learned about a 2016 expedition that verified that the species hasn’t perished. The trip in question was orchestrated by an international conservation partnership called the Red Siskin Initiative. Led by biologist Jhonathan Miranda, the team set out to find living specimens of near-extinct birds in western Venezuela. On the first full day of their trip, the team hit the jackpot when they became the first people to identify a Táchira antpitta’s distinctive cry since 1956. Later on, the explorers managed to photograph one of the birds. Altogether, they spotted two individuals and heard a total of four.

BONUS: THE NEW GUINEA HIGHLAND WILD DOG

A lot of controversy surrounds this animal. Scientists can’t reach a consensus on how the New Guinea highland wild dog should be classified. Some say it’s a valid canine species, others regard it as merely a dingo subspecies, and still others write off the creature as a primitive domestic dog breed.

In any event, the pooch is world famous for its weird, high-pitched howl. The first western scientist to learn of its existence was English zoologist Charles Walter Di Vis, who came across one on Mount Scratchley in Papua New Guinea back in 1897. A handful of these dogs were exported in the 1950s and today, captive-bred specimens can be found in zoos from Neumünster, Germany to Kansas City, Missouri.

But what happened to their wild counterparts? One free-roaming individual was photographed on New Guinea’s Star Mountains in 1989. However, no other verified encounters with these dogs in their natural habitat were made until September 2016, when researchers used camera traps to snag 140 photographs of a wild group of at least 15 canines. The participating adventurers also documented paw prints and gathered fecal material. News of their findings was broken in a March 24, 2017 press release from the New Guinea Highland Wild Dog Foundation, a nonprofit activist group.

Do Dogs Understand What You’re Telling Them? Scientists Are Scanning Their Brains to Find Out

iStock/kozorog
iStock/kozorog

We all know that dogs can learn to respond to human words, but it’s not always clear what’s happening in a dog’s brain when they hear and recognize words like “cookie” and “fetch.” Do they have to rely on other clues, like gestures, to figure out what we mean by that word? Do they picture a dog biscuit when you say “cookie,” or just the sensation of eating? In a new study, scientists from Emory University and the New College of Florida tried to get to the bottom of this question by training dogs to associate certain objects with words like “blue” and “duck,” then using fMRI brain scanners to see what was happening in the dogs’ heads when they heard that word.

The study, published in Frontiers in Neuroscience, examined the brains of 12 different dogs of various breeds (you can see them below) that had been trained to associate two different objects with random words like “duck,” “blue,” and “beach ball.” Those two objects, which were different for each dog, were brought by the dogs’ owners from home or chosen from a selection of dog toys the researchers compiled. One object had to be soft, like a stuffed animal, and the other one had to be something hard, like a rubber toy or squeaky toy, to make sure the dogs could clearly distinguish between the two. The dogs were trained for several months to associate these objects with their specific assigned words and to fetch them on command.

Then, they went into the fMRI machine, where they had been trained to sit quietly during scanning. The researchers had the dogs lie in the machine while their owners stood in front of them, saying the designated name for the toys and showing them the objects. To see how the dogs responded to unknown words, they also held up new objects, like a hat, and referred to them by gibberish words.

Dogs in a science lab with toys
Prichard et al., Frontiers in Neuroscience (2018]

The results suggest that dogs can, in fact, discriminate between words they know and novel words. While not all the dogs showed the same neural response, they showed activation in different regions of their brains when hearing the familiar word versus the novel one.

Some of the dogs showed evidence of a greater neural response in the parietotemporal cortex, an area of the dog brain believed to be similar to the human angular gyrus, the region of the brain that allows us to process the words we hear and read. Others showed more neural activity in other regions of the brain. These differences might be due to the fact that the study used dogs of different sizes and breeds, which could mean differences in their abilities.

The dogs did show a surprising trend in their brains’ response to new words. “We expected to see that dogs neurally discriminate between words that they know and words that they don’t,” lead author Ashley Prichard of Emory University said in a press release. “What's surprising is that the result is opposite to that of research on humans—people typically show greater neural activation for known words than novel words." This could be because the dogs were trying extra hard to understand what their owners were saying.

The results don’t prove that talking to your dog is the best way to get its attention, though—it just means that they may really know what's coming when you say, "Want a cookie?"

Scientists Find Fossil of 150-Million-Year-Old Flesh-Eating Fish—Plus a Few of Its Prey

M. Ebert and T. Nohl
M. Ebert and T. Nohl

A fossil of an unusual piranha-like fish from the Late Jurassic period has been unearthed by scientists in southern Germany, Australian news outlet the ABC reports. Even more remarkable than the fossil’s age—150 million years old—is the fact that the limestone deposit also contains some of the fish’s victims.

Fish with chunks missing from their fins were found near the predator fish, which has been named Piranhamesodon pinnatomus. Aside from the predator’s razor-sharp teeth, though, it doesn’t look like your usual flesh-eating fish. It belonged to an extinct order of bony fish that lived at the time of the dinosaurs, and until now, scientists didn’t realize there was a species of bony fish that tore into its prey in such a way. This makes it the first flesh-eating bony fish on record, long predating the piranha. 

“Fish as we know them, bony fishes, just did not bite flesh of other fishes at that time,” Dr. Martina Kölbl-Ebert, the paleontologist who found the fish with her husband, Martin Ebert, said in a statement. “Sharks have been able to bite out chunks of flesh, but throughout history bony fishes have either fed on invertebrates or largely swallowed their prey whole. Biting chunks of flesh or fins was something that came much later."

Kölbl-Ebert, the director of the Jura Museum in Eichstätt, Germany, says she was stunned to see the bony fish’s sharp teeth, comparing it to “finding a sheep with a snarl like a wolf.” This cunning disguise made the fish a fearful predator, and scientists believe the fish may have “exploited aggressive mimicry” to ambush unsuspecting fish.

The fossil was discovered in 2016 in southern Germany, but the find has only recently been described in the journal Current Biology. It was found at a quarry where other fossils, like those of the Archaeopteryx dinosaur, have been unearthed in the past.

[h/t the ABC]

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