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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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25 Benefits of Adopting a Rescue Dog
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According to the ASPCA, 3.3 million dogs enter shelters each year in the United States. Although that number has gone down since 2011 (from 3.9 million) there are still millions of dogs waiting in shelters for a forever home. October is Adopt a Shelter Dog Month; here are 25 benefits of adopting a shelter dog.

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Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.406E
New Smithsonian Exhibit Explains Why Felines Were the Cat's Meow in Ancient Egypt
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Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.406E

From bi-coastal cat cafes to celebrity pets like Lil Bub, felines are currently enjoying a peak moment in popular culture. That’s part of the reason why curators at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery—which will re-open to visitors on Saturday, October 14, following a 3-month closure—decided to dedicate a new exhibition to ancient Egypt’s relationship with the animals.

Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt” looks at the cultural and religious importance of cats, which the Egyptians appreciated long before YouTube was a thing and #caturday was a hashtag. It's based on a traveling exhibition that began at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City. On view until January 15, 2018, it's one of several exhibits that will kick off the grand reopening of the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler galleries, the conjoined national museums of Asian and Middle Eastern Art.

The Freer has been closed since January 2016 for major renovations, and the Sackler since July 2016 for minor ones. The upgraded institutions will make their public debut on October 14, and be feted by a free two-day festival on the National Mall.

Featuring 80 artworks and relics, ranging from figurines of leonine deities to the tiny coffins of beloved pets, "Divine Felines" even has a cat mummy on loan from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. These objects span from the Middle Kingdom (2008 to 1630 BCE) to the Byzantine period (395 to 642 CE).

An ancient Egyptian metal weight shaped like a cat, dating back to 305 to 30 BCE, on view at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Weight in Form of a Cat, 305 to 30 BCE, Bronze, silver, lead
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 36.114

The term “cat” is used loosely, as the Egyptians celebrated domestic mousers and fearsome predators alike.

“The Egyptians were close observers of nature, so they were observing cat behaviors,” Antonietta Catanzariti, the exhibition's in-house curator, tells Mental Floss. “They noticed that cats and lions— in general, felines—have aggressive and protective aspects, so they associated those attributes to deities.”

The ancient Egyptians viewed their gods as humans, animals, or mixed forms. Several of these pantheon members were both associated with and depicted as cats, including Bastet, the goddess of motherhood, fertility, and protection; and Sakhmet, the goddess of war and—when appeased—healing. She typically has a lion head, but in some myths she appears as a pacified cat.

A limestone sculptor's model of a walking lion, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Sculptor's Model of a Walking Lion, ca. 664 to 630 BCE, limestone
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 33.190

While Bastet was a nurturer, Sakhmet—whose name means “The Powerful One”—could use her mighty force to either slay or safeguard humanity. These characterizations are typical of the ancient Egyptian worldview, which perceived the universe in dualistic terms. “There’s always a positive and a negative,” Catanzariti explains.

Contrary to popular belief, however, ancient Egyptians did not view cats themselves as gods. “The goddess Sakhmet does have the features as a lion, or in some cases as a cat, but that doesn’t mean that the Egyptians were worshipping cats or lions,” Catanzariti says. Instead, they were simply noting and admiring her feline traits. This practice, to an extent, also extended to royalty. Kings were associated with lions and other large cats, as they were the powerful protectors of ancient Egypt’s borders.

These myriad associations prompted Egyptians to adorn palaces, temples, protective amulets, ceremonial vessels, and accessories with cat images. Depending on their context, these renderings symbolized everything from protection and power to beauty and sexuality. A king’s throne might have a lion-shaped support, for example, whereas a woman’s cosmetics case might be emblazoned with a cat-headed female goddess of motherhood and fertility.

An ancient Egyptian figurine of a standing lion-headed goddess, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Figurine of a Standing Lion-Headed Goddess, 664 to 630 BCE, Faience
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.943E

While cats were linked with heavenly figures and kings, they were also popular domestic pets. Their ability to catch vermin made them an important addition to households, and owners loved and anthropomorphized their pets just like we do today.

Egyptians often named, or nicknamed, their children after animals; Miit (cat) was a popular moniker for girls. It's said that entire households shaved their eyebrows in mourning if a house cat died a natural death. Some also believe that cats received special legal protection. (Not all cats were this lucky, however, as some temples bred kittens specifically to offer their mummified forms to the gods.) If a favorite cat died, the Egyptians would bury them in special decorated coffins, containers, and boxes. King Tutankhamen, for example, had a stone sarcophagus constructed just for his pet feline.

An ancient Egyptian bronze cat head adorned with gold jewelry, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Cat's Head, 30 BCE. to third century CE, bronze, gold
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 36.114

“Divine Felines” breaks down these facts, and more, into five thematic sections, including “Cats and Kings"; “Cats and Gods”; “Cats and Death”; “Cats and Protection”; and “Dogs as Guardians and Hunters.” Yes, there’s also an exhibition section for dog lovers—“a small one,” Catanzariti laughs, that explains why canines were associated with figures like Anubis, the jackal-headed god of mummification and the afterlife.

Did the ancient Egyptians prefer cats to dogs? “I would say that both of them had different roles,” Catanzariti says, as dogs were valued as hunters, scavengers, and guards. “They were appreciated in different ways for their ability to protect or be useful for the Egyptian culture.” In this way, "Divine Felines" is targeted to ailurophiles and canophiliacs alike, even if it's packaged with pointed ears and whiskers.

An ancient Egyptian cat coffin, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Coffin for a Cat, 664 to 332 BCE, or later, Wood, gesso, paint, animal remains
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.1944Ea-b


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