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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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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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Animals
15 Confusing Plant and Animal Misnomers
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iStock

People have always given names to the plants and animals around us. But as our study of the natural world has developed, we've realized that many of these names are wildly inaccurate. In fact, they often have less to say about nature than about the people who did the naming. Here’s a batch of these befuddling names.

1. COMMON NIGHTHAWK

There are two problems with this bird’s name. First, the common nighthawk doesn’t fly at night—it’s active at dawn and dusk. Second, it’s not a hawk. Native to North and South America, it belongs to a group of birds with an even stranger name: Goatsuckers. People used to think that these birds flew into barns at night and drank from the teats of goats. (In fact, they eat insects.)

2. IRISH MOSS

It’s not a moss—it’s a red alga that lives along the rocky shores of the northern Atlantic Ocean. Irish moss and other red algae give us carrageenan, a cheap food thickener that you may have eaten in gummy candies, soy milk, ice cream, veggie hot dogs, and more.

3. FISHER-CAT

Native to North America, the fisher-cat isn’t a cat at all: It’s a cousin of the weasel. It also doesn’t fish. Nobody’s sure where the fisher cat’s name came from. One possibility is that early naturalists confused it with the sea mink, a similar-looking creature that was an expert fisher. But the fisher-cat prefers to eat land animals. In fact, it’s one of the few creatures that can tackle a porcupine.

4. AMERICAN BLUE-EYED GRASS

American blue-eyed grass doesn’t have eyes (which is good, because that would be super creepy). Its blue “eyes” are flowers that peek up at you from a meadow. It’s also not a grass—it’s a member of the iris family.

5. MUDPUPPY

The mudpuppy isn’t a cute, fluffy puppy that scampered into some mud. It’s a big, mucus-covered salamander that spends all of its life underwater. (It’s still adorable, though.) The mudpuppy isn’t the only aquatic salamander with a weird name—there are many more, including the greater siren, the Alabama waterdog, and the world’s most metal amphibian, the hellbender.

6. WINGED DRAGONFISH

This weird creature has other fantastic and inaccurate names: brick seamoth, long-tailed dragonfish, and more. It’s really just a cool-looking fish. Found in the waters off of Asia, it has wing-like fins, and spends its time on the muddy seafloor.

7. NAVAL SHIPWORM

The naval shipworm is not a worm. It’s something much, much weirder: a kind of clam with a long, wormlike body that doesn’t fit in its tiny shell. It uses this modified shell to dig into wood, which it eats. The naval shipworm, and other shipworms, burrow through all sorts of submerged wood—including wooden ships.

8. WHIP SPIDERS

These leggy creatures are not spiders; they’re in a separate scientific family. They also don’t whip anything. Whip spiders have two long legs that look whip-like, but that are used as sense organs—sort of like an insect’s antennae. Despite their intimidating appearance, whip spiders are harmless to humans.

9. VELVET ANTS

A photograph of a velvet ant
Craig Pemberton, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

There are thousands of species of velvet ants … and all are wasps, not ants. These insects have a fuzzy, velvety look. Don’t pat them, though—velvet ants aren’t aggressive, but the females pack a powerful sting.

10. SLOW WORM

The slow worm is not a worm. It’s a legless reptile that lives in parts of Europe and Asia. Though it looks like a snake, it became legless through a totally separate evolutionary path from the one snakes took. It has many traits in common with lizards, such as eyelids and external ear holes.

11. TRAVELER'S PALM

This beautiful tree from Madagascar has been planted in tropical gardens all around the world. It’s not actually a palm, but belongs to a family that includes the bird of paradise flower. In its native home, the traveler’s palm reproduces with the help of lemurs that guzzle its nectar and spread pollen from tree to tree.

12. VAMPIRE SQUID

Drawing of a vampire squid
Carl Chun, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This deep-sea critter isn’t a squid. It’s the only surviving member of a scientific order that has characteristics of both octopuses and squids. And don’t let the word “vampire” scare you; it only eats bits of falling marine debris (dead stuff, poop, and so on), and it’s only about 11 inches long.

13. MALE FERN & LADY FERN

Early botanists thought that these two ferns belonged to the same species. They figured that the male fern was the male of the species because of its coarse appearance. The lady fern, on the other hand, has lacy fronds and seemed more ladylike. Gender stereotypes aside, male and lady Ferns belong to entirely separate species, and almost all ferns can make both male and female reproductive cells. If ferns start looking manly or womanly to you, maybe you should take a break from botany.

14. TENNESSEE WARBLER

You will never find a single Tennessee warbler nest in Tennessee. This bird breeds mostly in Canada, and spends the winter in Mexico and more southern places. But early ornithologist Alexander Wilson shot one in 1811 in Tennessee during its migration, and the name stuck.

15. CANADA THISTLE

Though it’s found across much of Canada, this spiky plant comes from Europe and Asia. Early European settlers brought Canada thistle seeds to the New World, possibly as accidental hitchhikers in grain shipments. A tough weed, the plant soon spread across the continent, taking root in fields and pushing aside crops. So why does it have this inaccurate name? Americans may have been looking for someone to blame for this plant—so they blamed Canada.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

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