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14 Fantastic New Beasts Discovered in 2014

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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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Sylke Rohrlach, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
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Animals
Scientists Discover 'Octlantis,' a Bustling Octopus City
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Sylke Rohrlach, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Octopuses are insanely talented: They’ve been observed building forts, playing games, and even walking on dry land. But one area where the cephalopods come up short is in the social department. At least that’s what marine biologists used to believe. Now a newly discovered underwater community, dubbed Octlantis, is prompting scientists to call their characterization of octopuses as loners into question.

As Quartz reports, the so-called octopus city is located in Jervis Bay off Australia’s east coast. The patch of seafloor is populated by as many as 15 gloomy octopuses, a.k.a. common Sydney octopuses (octopus tetricus). Previous observations of the creatures led scientists to think they were strictly solitary, not counting their yearly mating rituals. But in Octlantis, octopuses communicate by changing colors, evict each other from dens, and live side by side. In addition to interacting with their neighbors, the gloomy octopuses have helped build the infrastructure of the city itself. On top of the rock formation they call home, they’ve stored mounds of clam and scallop shells and shaped them into shelters.

There is one other known gloomy octopus community similar to this one, and it may help scientists understand how and why they form. The original site, called Octopolis, was discovered in the same bay in 2009. Unlike Octlantis, Octopolis was centered around a manmade object that had sunk to the seabed and provided dens for up to 16 octopuses at a time. The researchers studying it had assumed it was a freak occurrence. But this new city, built around a natural habitat, shows that gloomy octopuses in the area may be evolving to be more social.

If that's the case, it's unclear why such octo-cities are so uncommon. "Relative to the more typical solitary life, the costs and benefits of living in aggregations and investing in interactions remain to be documented," the researchers who discovered the group wrote in a paper published in Marine and Freshwater Behavior and Physiology [PDF].

It’s also possible that for the first time in history humans have the resources to see octopus villages that perhaps have always been bustling beneath the sea surface.

[h/t Quartz]

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This Just In
Criminal Gangs Are Smuggling Illegal Rhino Horns as Jewelry
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iStock

Valuable jewelry isn't always made from precious metals or gems. Wildlife smugglers in Africa are increasingly evading the law by disguising illegally harvested rhinoceros horns as wearable baubles and trinkets, according to a new study conducted by wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC.

As BBC News reports, TRAFFIC analyzed 456 wildlife seizure records—recorded between 2010 and June 2017—to trace illegal rhino horn trade routes and identify smuggling methods. In a report, the organization noted that criminals have disguised rhino horns in the past using all kinds of creative methods, including covering the parts with aluminum foil, coating them in wax, or smearing them with toothpaste or shampoo to mask the scent of decay. But as recent seizures in South Africa suggest, Chinese trafficking networks within the nation are now concealing the coveted product by shaping horns into beads, disks, bangles, necklaces, and other objects, like bowls and cups. The protrusions are also ground into powder and stored in bags along with horn bits and shavings.

"It's very worrying," Julian Rademeyer, a project leader with TRAFFIC, told BBC News. "Because if someone's walking through the airport wearing a necklace made of rhino horn, who is going to stop them? Police are looking for a piece of horn and whole horns."

Rhino horn is a hot commodity in Asia. The keratin parts have traditionally been ground up and used to make medicines for illnesses like rheumatism or cancer, although there's no scientific evidence that these treatments work. And in recent years, horn objects have become status symbols among wealthy men in countries like Vietnam.

"A large number of people prefer the powder, but there are those who use it for lucky charms,” Melville Saayman, a professor at South Africa's North-West University who studies the rhino horn trade, told ABC News. “So they would like a piece of the horn."

According to TRAFFIC, at least 1249 rhino horns—together weighing more than five tons—were seized globally between 2010 and June 2017. The majority of these rhino horn shipments originated in southern Africa, with the greatest demand coming from Vietnam and China. The product is mostly smuggled by air, but routes change and shift depending on border controls and law enforcement resources.

Conservationists warn that this booming illegal trade has led to a precipitous decline in Africa's rhinoceros population: At least 7100 of the nation's rhinos have been killed over the past decade, according to one estimate, and only around 25,000 remain today. Meanwhile, Save the Rhino International, a UK-based conservation charity, told BBC News that if current poaching trends continue, rhinos could go extinct in the wild within the next 10 years.

[h/t BBC News]

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