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12 Cool Species Discovered in 2015

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Scientists have already cataloged some 1.2 million species, but there’s still plenty of work to do. Some researchers estimate that around 86 percent of the species on earth still await description. Taxonomists continue to chip away at the number, and in the last decade or so, have reported around 16,000 new species each year. 2015 was no different, and they discovered a variety of wonderful new forms of life. Here are just a few of them. 


Biologist James Thomas discovered this amphipod (a type of crustacean) living inside sponges and bivalves on coral reefs around the Indonesian coast. When he got one under the microscope, he thought that its large claws looked a lot like shoes. He decided to name the species in honor of Elton John, whose music he said he often listens to in the lab, and whose oversized boots in Tommy resembled the critter’s claws. 


aposematic herpetologist, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

It shouldn’t be easy for something as big as a tortoise to go unnoticed for long, especially in a place that gets as much attention from biologists as the Galapagos Islands. But that’s sort of what happened on the island of Santa Cruz. The Galapagos tortoise populations on the east and west ends of the island looked so similar that they were considered the same species, but a genetic analysis led by evolutionary biologist Adalgisa Caccone revealed that they’re two different species. What’s more, they’re both more closely related to species on other islands than they are to each other. To figure out which population got renamed as a new species, the researchers turned to taxonomy experts, and decided that east side population could become Chelonoidis donfaustoi. The species is named after Fausto Llerena Sánchez, a park ranger who was the primary caretaker of the famous tortoise Lonesome George. 


The white-cheeked macaque, discovered in southeastern Tibet, owes its name to its white whiskers, but it was a feature a little further down that helped researchers determine it as a new species. Among other differences between it and the other macaque species in the region, are the shape and color of its business parts. While the other species there have penises with spear-shaped tips and white scrotums, the new guy has a rounded penis and a dark, hairy scrotum. 


To the international team found that found this bird in China, it's no wonder that the Sichuan bush warbler stayed undiscovered for so long. The species, they say, is “extremely secretive and usually difficult to observe, and normally keeps in dense cover.” The team was able to draw the bird out and distinguish it from other warbler species thanks, in part, to its odd song, a low-pitched drawn-out buzz, followed by a shorter click, repeated in series (the bird’s plumage, body structure and genetics also helped tease it apart from its cousins). The bird’s name is a nod to the late Cheng Tso-hsin, a prominent Chinese ornithologist who founded the Peking Natural History Museum when he wasn’t busy writing one of the 100+ scientific papers he published during his career. 


Kristensen et al. in Systematic Entomology

A team of researchers spent years capturing moths on Australia’s Kangaroo Island, and caught a number of specimens that they didn’t recognize. After analyzing the moths’ physical features and DNA, the scientists concluded that the insects were not only a new species, but belonged an entirely new family. They named this new grouping Aenigmatineidae after the moths' “enigmatic combination” of modern and primitive physical traits. The moths are incredibly short-lived, according to the researchers, and emerge from their cocoons, mate, lay their eggs and die all in just one day. 


Researchers working in Los Angeles described a whopping 30 new species in a single paper this spring, all flies from the genus Megaselia and all found in backyards around the city. The flies were discovered in insect traps hosted by citizen scientists, and each new species was named after the person whose yard it came from. The discoveries show that unknown species aren’t just lurking in exotic, far-off places but can be found right outside our homes. 


This centimeter-long insect, one of three new species discovered by a pair of Australian naturalists, is found only in Launceston, Tasmania. Its known range is less than 12 square kilometers in the city’s parks and it hasn’t been found anywhere outside the city limits. Biologist Robert Nesibov, who described the species, named it after the jackal-headed Egyptian god Anubis when the naturalists noted that the bug’s genitals resembled the god’s ears and snout. 


Discovered in Costa Rica, Diane's bare-hearted glass frog stands out for two reasons. The first is its bulging white eyes and big black pupils, which prompted widespread comparisons to Kermit the Frog (and even a comment from the Muppet himself) when the discovery was announced. If you can get past the similarity long enough to flip the frog over, you’ll find the second notable characteristic: like other glass frogs', H. dianae’s belly skin is translucent, giving a clear view of its organs. 


Like C. donfaustoi, this bat has been hiding right under scientists’ noses for a while, and was long mistaken for one of its relatives. Biologists Ricardo Moratelli and Daniela Dias were doing research on the tropical bat group Lonchophylla when they noticed that some of their specimens of the species L. mordax, collected from museums around the world, didn’t look quite right. The bats’ fur was much paler and their body measurements were inconsistent with what’s typical of the species. A closer look revealed that these animals belonged to a species unknown to science. The researchers named their discovery inexpectata as a nod to their surprise in finding a new species among misidentified museum collections. 


Figures 5A and 5B are two views of the tiny A. nana snail. Image credit: Vermeulen et al. in ZooKeys 

Just a few weeks after Angustopila dominikae was discovered and named the world’s smallest snail, Acmella nana broke the record again. Discovered along with 47 other new species in Malaysian Borneo, the tiny critter has a shell that’s just 0.50–0.60 mm wide and 0.60–0.79 tall. It’s named for its small stature, with “nanus” coming from the Latin for “dwarf.”


Normally, a species is described and named after a rigorous examination of a dead specimen and comparison to similar specimens. That’s what biologists Stephen Marshall and Neal Evenhuis would have done with a rare unidentified fly they found in South Africa, but the bug they caught escaped before it could be preserved. They had plenty of photographs of two of the flies, though, and decided to base their description of the species on those. It was the first time this had been done with a new insect species, but the scientists think that it will become common practice. While collecting and preserving specimens is the “gold standard” for species descriptions, they say, it’s becoming harder for scientists to get the permits they need to collect specimens in many places and “digital specimens” in the form of photos may have to take their place in some cases. As for the new fly, the scientists note that it has a “striking yellow and black” pattern and odd body shape, that make it look a lot like bees, which they think it might parasitize. 


It took dozens of researchers, support staff, and six cavers to retrieve more than 1500 fossil fragments from deep within the Rising Star cave system in South Africa. The end result of all that work is the description of Homo naledi, a potential new species of extinct hominin. Scientists aren’t yet sure when the ancient human relative lived or exactly how it fits in our family tree, but it looks like nothing else in the human fossil record.

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Big Questions
Should You Keep Your Pets Indoors During the Solar Eclipse?
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By now, you probably know what you’ll be doing on August 21, when a total solar eclipse makes its way across the continental United States. You’ve had your safety glasses ready since January (and have confirmed that they’ll actually protect your retinas), you’ve picked out the perfect vantage point in your area for the best view, and you’ve memorized Nikon’s tips for how to take pictures of this rare celestial phenomenon. Still, it feels like you’re forgetting something … and it’s probably the thing that's been right under your nose, and sitting on your lap, the whole time: your pets.

Even if you’ve never witnessed a solar eclipse, you undoubtedly know that you’re never supposed to look directly at the sun during one. But what about your four-legged family members? Shouldn’t Fido be fitted with a pair of eclipse glasses before he heads out for his daily walk? Could Princess Kitty be in danger of having her peepers singed if she’s lounging on her favorite windowsill? While, like humans, looking directly at the sun during a solar eclipse does pose the potential of doing harm to a pet’s eyes, it’s unlikely that the thought would even occur to the little ball of fluff.

“It’s no different than any other day,” Angela Speck, co-chair of the AAS National Solar Eclipse Task Force, explained during a NASA briefing in June. “On a normal day, your pets don’t try to look at the sun and therefore don’t damage their eyes, so on this day they’re not going to do it either. It is not a concern, letting them outside. All that’s happened is we’ve blocked out the sun, it’s not more dangerous. So I think that people who have pets want to think about that. I’m not going to worry about my cat.”

Dr. Jessica Vogelsang, a veterinarian, author, and founder of pawcurious, echoed Speck’s statement, but allowed that there’s no such thing as being too cautious. “It’s hard for me to criticize such a well-meaning warning, because there’s really no harm in following the advice to keep pets inside during the eclipse,” Vogelsang told Snopes. “It’s better to be too cautious than not cautious enough. But in the interest of offering a realistic risk assessment, the likelihood of a pet ruining their eyes the same way a human would during an eclipse is much lower—not because the damage would be any less were they to stare at the sun, but because, from a behavior standpoint, dogs and cats just don’t have any interest in doing so. We tend to extrapolate a lot of things from people to pets that just doesn’t bear out, and this is one of them.

“I’ve seen lots of warnings from the astronomy community and the human medical community about the theoretical dangers of pets and eclipses, but I’m not sure if any of them really know animal behavior all that well," Vogelsang continued. "It’s not like there’s a big outcry from the wildlife community to go chase down coyotes and hawks and bears and give them goggles either. While we in the veterinary community absolutely appreciate people being concerned about their pets’ wellbeing, this is a non-issue for us.”

The bigger issue, according to several experts, would be with pets who are already sensitive to Mother Nature. "If you have the sort of pet that's normally sensitive to shifts in the weather, they might be disturbed by just the whole vibe because the temperature will drop and the sky will get dark,” Melanie Monteiro, a pet safety expert and author of The Safe-Dog Handbook: A Complete Guide to Protecting Your Pooch, Indoors and Out, told TODAY.

“If [your pets] have learned some association with it getting darker, they will show that behavior or at a minimum they get confused because the timeframe does not correspond,” Dr. Carlo Siracusa of Penn Vet Hospital told CBS Philly. “You might put the blinds down, but not exactly when the dark is coming but when it is still light.” 

While Monteiro again reasserts that, "Dogs and cats don't normally look up into the sun, so you don't need to get any special eye protection for your pets,” she says that it’s never a bad idea to take some extra precautions. So if you’re headed out to an eclipse viewing party, why not do your pets a favor and leave them at home. They won’t even know what they’re missing.

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Big Questions
Why Can't Dogs Eat Chocolate?
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Even if you don’t have a dog, you probably know that they can’t eat chocolate; it’s one of the most well-known toxic substances for canines (and felines, for that matter). But just what is it about chocolate that is so toxic to dogs? Why can't dogs eat chocolate when we eat it all the time without incident?

It comes down to theobromine, a chemical in chocolate that humans can metabolize easily, but dogs cannot. “They just can’t break it down as fast as humans and so therefore, when they consume it, it can cause illness,” Mike Topper, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, tells Mental Floss.

The toxic effects of this slow metabolization can range from a mild upset stomach to seizures, heart failure, and even death. If your dog does eat chocolate, they may get thirsty, have diarrhea, and become hyperactive and shaky. If things get really bad, that hyperactivity could turn into seizures, and they could develop an arrhythmia and have a heart attack.

While cats are even more sensitive to theobromine, they’re less likely to eat chocolate in the first place. They’re much more picky eaters, and some research has found that they can’t taste sweetness. Dogs, on the other hand, are much more likely to sit at your feet with those big, mournful eyes begging for a taste of whatever you're eating, including chocolate. (They've also been known to just swipe it off the counter when you’re not looking.)

If your dog gets a hold of your favorite candy bar, it’s best to get them to the vet within two hours. The theobromine is metabolized slowly, “therefore, if we can get it out of the stomach there will be less there to metabolize,” Topper says. Your vet might be able to induce vomiting and give your dog activated charcoal to block the absorption of the theobromine. Intravenous fluids can also help flush it out of your dog’s system before it becomes lethal.

The toxicity varies based on what kind of chocolate it is (milk chocolate has a lower dose of theobromine than dark chocolate, and baking chocolate has an especially concentrated dose), the size of your dog, and whether or not the dog has preexisting health problems, like kidney or heart issues. While any dog is going to get sick, a small, old, or unhealthy dog won't be able to handle the toxic effects as well as a large, young, healthy dog could. “A Great Dane who eats two Hershey’s kisses may not have the same [reaction] that a miniature Chihuahua that eats four Hershey’s kisses has,” Topper explains. The former might only get diarrhea, while the latter probably needs veterinary attention.

Even if you have a big dog, you shouldn’t just play it by ear, though. PetMD has a handy calculator to see just what risk levels your dog faces if he or she eats chocolate, based on the dog’s size and the amount eaten. But if your dog has already ingested chocolate, petMD shouldn’t be your go-to source. Call your vet's office, where they are already familiar with your dog’s size, age, and condition. They can give you the best advice on how toxic the dose might be and how urgent the situation is.

So if your dog eats chocolate, you’re better off paying a few hundred dollars at the vet to make your dog puke than waiting until it’s too late.

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