Jeff Cremer/YouTube
Jeff Cremer/YouTube

14 Fantastic New Beasts Discovered in 2014

Jeff Cremer/YouTube
Jeff Cremer/YouTube

Although we might act like we’re the only game in town, humans are only one of Earth’s roughly 8.7 million species of animals, plants, fungi, and protists. Each year, we discover another 15,000 species. In the last 12 months, scientists have described sex-crazed marsupials, enormous insects, and a punk rock snail—which would make 2014 the year of sex, bugs, and rock and roll. (Sorry. Not sorry.)

1. Atlantic Coast Leopard Frog (Rana kauffeldi) // New York Metropolitan Area, USA

Brian R. Curry

If you’ve ever tried coughing to get somebody’s attention, you know that it usually doesn’t work, and then you have to go on pretending to cough, then really coughing, for what seems like years. This is the story of the Atlantic Coast leopard frog, which has been coughing fecklessly in backyards in the New York City area for decades.

Ecologist Carl Kauffeld first came up with the idea of a third species of leopard frog in 1937, but nobody believed him. In 2012, the results of genetic studies indicated that there was a new frog species centered around Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. Then earlier this year, a combination of DNA tests and that weird, cough-like croak confirmed that Kauffeld was right, and the frog was named Rana kauffeldi in his honor.

2. Giant Stick Insect (Phryganistria heusii yentuensis) // Vietnam

Female giant stick insect. Photo by Bresseel & Constant, Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences.

The newly identified giant stick bug Phryganistria heusii yentuensis really lives up to its name: a female can reach 21 inches, making it the second biggest living bug ever described (the only one bigger is another stick insect living in Borneo). Males are much smaller, which makes mating pretty funny to watch.

3. Bone-House Wasp (Deuteragenia ossarium) // China

The female bone-house wasp brings macabre to a new level: First she stings and paralyzes a spider, then drags the paralyzed body into her nest. There, she lays a single egg on the unlucky spider, then buries it alive. Not too long afterward, the egg hatches, and the new wasp larva eats its way out of the still-living spider.

And that’s the nice part. Bone-house wasps eat spiders, but they also kill ants and bring them back to the nest. Not for food, either: this is just to send a message. Adults carry the ant corpses home, then pile them up at the nest entrance like a gruesome UPS delivery. 

4. Narrow-Mouthed Frog (Chiasmocleis quilombola) // Brazil

João F. R. Tonini; CC-BY 4.0

Deep in the rain forest or Espirito Santo dwells a teeny-tiny frog with a big story. These diminutive amphibians (adults can grow up to about half an inch long) may not look like much, but their forest habitat once kept an incredible secret: the quilombos, or refuges for escaped slaves. The quilombos grew into full-fledged communities during the heydey of Brazil’s slave economy from the 16th to 19th centuries, and some still exist around the country today. 

Wanting to pay tribute to Espirito Santo’s remarkable heritage, the scientists who found the little frog named it Chiasmocleis quilombola

5. Intricate Satyr Butterfly (Hermeuptychia intricata) // Eastern United States

Zookeys

Researchers from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center were studying the genetics of a sampling of Carolina satyrs (Hermeuptychia sosybius)—small, brown butterflies discovered in 1793—when they noticed something odd: The DNA didn't match up. "[The] butterflies looked indistinguishable, were flying together at the same place on the same day, but their DNA molecules were very different from each other," Dr. Nick Grishin, a professor of biochemistry, said. "We thought there was some kind of mistake in our experiments.”

But the DNA didn't lie: Although the insects' wings were nearly indistinguishable, their genitalia were quite different. Carolina satyrs had larger, paler genitalia, while the other species—which scientists called the Intricate Satyr—had smaller, darker genitalia. The species remained undiscovered for so long because it was hiding in plain sight. "[W]e were not able to find reliable wing pattern characters to tell a difference between the two species," the researchers write in their description of the species, which was published in ZooKeys. "This superficial similarity may explain why H. intricata, only distantly related to H. sosybius, has remained unnoticed until now, despite being widely distributed in the coastal plains from South Carolina to Texas, USA (and possibly to Costa Rica)."

And the discoveries didn't end there! Further DNA analysis of other satyr populations revealed another new species, the south Texas satyr (Hermeuptychia hermybius).

6. Elephant Shrew (Macroscelides micus) // Namibia

Galen Rathbun 

What do manatees, elephants, and aardvarks have in common? They can all call this adorable little potato their cousin. Elephant shrews, also known as sengis, are more closely related to elephants than they are to shrews. The sengi species discovered this year is a real trooper, dashing from hiding spot to hiding spot at the edge of the Namib Desert, where plants and shelter are sparse. 

To make sure the shy, rare, speedy Macroscelides micus was truly a new species, scientists had to get a closer look. Fortunately, they learned, the sengis were partial to peanut butter and Marmite. “They’re really sloppy eaters,” says researcher Galen Rathbun. 

7. Killer Sponges (Genera Asbestopluma and Cladorhiza) // Pacific Ocean

If there’s one thing less threatening than Killer Tofu, it’s got to be a killer sponge—unless you’re a crustacean.

Scientists found four new species of carnivorous sea sponges acting casual on the Pacific seafloor. “No,” the immobile, expressionless sponges seemed to say. “We’re not dangerous. Come over here.” But they were lying. Closer inspection of the sponges revealed the tiny corpses of partially digested prey tangled in the sponges’ microscopic hooks. Amphipods, if you’re reading this: beware. (And also, well done, learning to read!)

8. The Boozy Cockroach (Xestoblatta berenbaumae) // Guyana

It stinks. It drinks. And now, it’s funding research.

The latest addition to the cockroach compendium was announced in March by Dominic Evangelista, a PhD student in entomology, and his colleagues. In a blog post on Entomology Today, Evangelista called the new cockroach “dirty, ugly, and smelly,” and added, “These cockroaches have such a serious drinking problem, they’ll drown themselves in [beer].” 

What a sales pitch! And a sales pitch it was: Evangelista had decided to auction off the rights to name the cockroach, with proceeds going to fund his research. The highest bidder? None other than outspoken entomologist May Berenbaum, who recently won the National Medal of Science. But what’s a medal when there are cockroaches to name? “I’m so pleased!” she told the press. “There’s no greater honor.”

9. Bat Frog (Dendropsophus ozzyi) // Brazil

Marcel Sturaro

If it looks a little wary, the newly discovered “bat frog” has good reason: it was named for that famous bat-biter, heavy metal singer Ozzy Osbourne. But Dendropsophus ozzyi needn’t fear; for starters, it lives in the Brazilian Amazon, which is hardly Osbourne territory. And it only sounds like a bat, with its shrill call. And Ozzy doesn’t do that stuff anymore, anyway. 

10. Metal-eating Plant (Rinorea niccolifera) // Philippines

Edwino S. Fernando

A plant that eats nickel? And you thought Ozzy was metal. The newly discovered Rinorea niccolifera possesses the ridiculously hardcore ability to absorb metal without suffering any ill effects. The talent is super-rare—only 0.5 to 1 percent of plants growing in nickel-rich soil have been proven to do it—and has great potential for green technology.

11. Punk Rock Sea Snail (Alviniconcha strummeri) // Hydrothermal Vents, Western Pacific and Indian Oceans

Shannon B. Johnson

Snails are pretty great to begin with. Sea snails take it to the next level. And then there’s the punk rock sea snail, with its rows of spikes and its truly hardcore habitat. Scientists found this snail and several others in the sea-floor area surrounding hydrothermal vents, where the water can reach up to 750° F and higher. Noting the newcomer’s spiky shell, its purple blood, and its “extreme environment,” the researchers decided to name it Alviniconcha strummeri, after The Clash’s lead singer Joe Strummer. 

12. Black-Tailed Antechinus (Antechinus arktos) // Australia

Nature can be pretty brutal, and sometimes what looks like a party is actually a death trap. That’s certainly the case for the mouse-like marsupial known as the antechinus, which literally screws itself to death. After a series of marathon mating sessions lasting up to 14 hours each, the cute little body of the male antechinus is so flooded with stress hormone that it just gives up, and the antechinus dies. Both sexes are “highly promiscuous,” said the scientists who named the species, and a female’s brood is typically the result of pairings with a bunch of different males, all, tragically, deceased. The scientists believe the species is endangered, although I can’t imagine why.

13. Mystery Monster (species unknown) // Peru

From a distance, they look so pretty, like a wall of glowing green lights. Up close? Terrifying. Entomologists discovered the mystery insect, which they believe is the larva of some kind of click beetle, on Reddit, when a wildlife photographer posted an image of the bugs and asked for ID. They headed to the Amazonian forest to find the larvae, and were astonished by its fierce hunting strategy. The glow-worms lay their luminous little heads just outside their hidey-holes, waiting until some curious insect comes along. When it does, the larvae snap it up in their jaws and drag it down into their lairs. The lights go out. Let’s all take a moment to be grateful that this mystery species, whatever it is, is only about a half-inch long.

14. Possible New Snailfish // Mariana Trench, Pacific Ocean

Researchers on an international expedition to the Mariana Trench spotted this creepy fish 8143 meters below the surface—which makes it the deepest-living fish. (The previous record, 7703 meters, was held by Pseudoliparis amblystomopsis, a species of snailfish.) "We think it is a snailfish, but it's so weird-looking; it's up in the air in terms of what it is," Dr. Alan Jamieson, from Oceanlab at the University of Aberdeen, told the BBC. "It is unbelievably fragile, and when it swims, it looks like it has wet tissue paper floating behind it. And it has a weird snout—it looks like a cartoon dog snout." Without being able to bring it up, scientists can't confirm that it's a new species, but Jamieson says it doesn't look like anything he's seen before.

...And Everybody Else.

There were way too many cool species to narrow it down to 14. In the last year, scientists have found handfuls of mantises, birdsshrimp, and even a few dinosaurs.

It’s easy to get cocky and think we’ve seen everything there is to see on this planet. But every time we think we’re done, along come the killer sponges.

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How Bats Protect Rare Books at This Portuguese Library
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Visit the Joanina Library at the University of Coimbra in Portugal at night and you might think the building has a bat problem. It's true that common pipistrelle bats live there, occupying the space behind the bookshelves by day and swooping beneath the arched ceilings and in and out of windows once the sun goes down, but they're not a problem. As Smithsonian reports, the bats play a vital role in preserving the institution's manuscripts, so librarians are in no hurry to get rid of them.

The bats that live in the library don't damage the books and, because they're nocturnal, they usually don't bother the human guests. The much bigger danger to the collection is the insect population. Many bug species are known to gnaw on paper, which could be disastrous for the library's rare items that date from before the 19th century. The bats act as a natural form of pest control: At night, they feast on the insects that would otherwise feast on library books.

The Joanina Library is famous for being one of the most architecturally stunning libraries on earth. It was constructed before 1725, but when exactly the bats arrived is unknown. Librarians can say for sure they've been flapping around the halls since at least the 1800s.

Though bats have no reason to go after the materials, there is one threat they pose to the interior: falling feces. Librarians protect against this by covering their 18th-century tables with fabric made from animal skin at night and cleaning the floors of guano every morning.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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Honey Bees Can Understand the Concept of Zero
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The concept of zero—less than one, nothing, nada—is deceptively complex. The first placeholder zero dates back to around 300 BCE, and the notion didn’t make its way to Western Europe until the 12th century. It takes children until preschool to wrap their brains around the concept. But scientists in Australia recently discovered a new animal capable of understanding zero: the honey bee. According to Vox, a new study finds that the insects can be taught the concept of nothing.

A few other animals can understand zero, according to current research. Dolphins, parrots, and monkeys can all understand the difference between something and nothing, but honey bees are the first insects proven to be able to do it.

The new study, published in the journal Science, finds that honey bees can rank quantities based on “greater than” and “less than,” and can understand that nothing is less than one.

Left: A photo of a bee choosing between images with black dots on them. Right: an illustration of a bee choosing the image with fewer dots
© Scarlett Howard & Aurore Avarguès-Weber

The researchers trained bees to identify images in the lab that showed the fewest number of elements (in this case, dots). If they chose the image with the fewest circles from a set, they received sweetened water, whereas if they chose another image, they received bitter quinine.

Once the insects got that concept down, the researchers introduced another challenge: The bees had to choose between a blank image and one with dots on it. More than 60 percent of the time, the insects were successfully able to extrapolate that if they needed to choose the fewest dots between an image with a few dots and an image with no dots at all, no dots was the correct answer. They could grasp the concept that nothing can still be a numerical quantity.

It’s not entirely surprising that bees are capable of such feats of intelligence. We already know that they can count, teach each other skills, communicate via the “waggle dance,” and think abstractly. This is just more evidence that bees are strikingly intelligent creatures, despite the fact that their insect brains look nothing like our own.

Considering how far apart bees and primates are on the evolutionary tree, and how different their brains are from ours—they have fewer than 1 million neurons, while we have about 86 billion—this finding raises a lot of new questions about the neural basis of understanding numbers, and will no doubt lead to further research on how the brain processes concepts like zero.

[h/t Vox]

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