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Jens Kipping
Jens Kipping

Ruby-Red Seadragons and Other New Species Make Top 10 List

Jens Kipping
Jens Kipping

Nearly 18,000 new species are discovered or identified each year. Some of those are named for celebrities, and others are given more colorful monikers. Some are big, and many are tiny, but all of them enrich our understanding of this planet we call home.

Still, some are more exciting than others—at least according to the State University of New York (SUNY)’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF), which asked an international committee of scientists to choose the most notable species discovered in the past year. The ESF has just released its Top 10 New Species list, which includes a ruby-red seadragon, a new human relative, and a damselfly named for a Pink Floyd album.

"In the past half-century we have come to recognize that species are going extinct at an alarming rate,” ESF president Quentin Wheeler said in a press statement. “It is time that we accelerate species exploration, too. Knowledge of what species exist, where they live, and what they do will help mitigate the biodiversity crisis and archive evidence of the life on our planet that does disappear in the wild.”

With so many new species described every year, why does the ESF consider these 10 especially important? Read on to find out. (Note that the species are in alphabetical order by scientific name. They're not ranked.)

1. GIANT TORTOISE (CHELONOIDIS DONFAUSTOI)

Washington Tapia

You would think that we’ve learned all there is to learn about the giant tortoises of the Galápagos Islands. You’d be wrong. Last year, genetic analysis of two tortoise populations on Isla Santa Cruz revealed that they were actually two different species: the established Chelonoidis porteri on the western half, and a new group, Chelonoidis donfaustoi. The latter, which comprises only about 250 tortoises, was named in honor of a park ranger and conservationist who called himself Don Fausto.

2. GIANT SUNDEW (DROSERA MAGNIFICA)

Paulo M. Gonella

Any carnivorous plant is worth a second look, but the giant sundew is extra cool. Growing up to 48 inches, this plant has earned its name. D. magnifica was first spotted by an amateur botanist atop the single mountain in Brazil where it grows. Reginaldo Vasconcelos took a snapshot of the plant and shared it on Facebook, where it was seen by plant researcher Paulo Gonella, who knew at once he was looking at a new species.

3. HOMININ (HOMO NALEDI)

John Hawks, Wits University

The hominin family tree got a little bigger last year when the remains of at least 15 individuals were discovered in a deep cave in South Africa. They have a never-before-seen mix of features reminiscent of various ancient human relatives, including Australopithecus and other Homo species. H. naledi was approximately the size of a petite modern human, but it had a brain the size of an orange. Other features are just as confounding. Scientists are currently working to determine just how old the remains are.

4. ISOPOD (IUIUNISCUS IUIUENSIS)

Souza, Ferreira, and Senna

Isopods are armored, many-legged crustaceans. This group, which includes pill bugs, is large and diverse, yet the newly discovered I. iuiuensis does something no other isopod can: It builds little huts for itself out of mud where it can safely shed its exoskeleton. The tiny bug, less than half an inch long, was found at the bottom of a sinkhole.

5. ANGLERFISH (LASIOGNATHUS DINEMA)

Theodore W. Pietsch, University of Washington

Ahhh, anglerfish. These mistresses of trickery and horror are, without a doubt, some of the weirdest creatures in the ocean, and that’s saying something. L. dinema has the unfortunate distinction of being discovered in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill during an assessment of damages to marine habitats.

6. RUBY SEADRAGON (PHYLLOPTERYX DEWYSEA)

Josefin Stiller, Nerida Wilson, and Greg Rouse

Like their cousins the seahorses, seadragons are long, bony fish with trumpet-like snoots. Only the third species of seadragon discovered, P. dewysea is about 10 inches long and makes its home in slightly deeper waters than its kin.

7. PADDINGTON BEETLE (PHYTOTELMATRICHIS OSOPADDINGTON)

Michael Darby

This one’s something of a bait and switch: Scientists named this featherwing beetle after Paddington Bear in order to draw attention not to the beetles, but to the threatened Andean spectacled bear that inspired Paddington in the first place. The books tell of a bear that showed up in Paddington station with a sign reading “Please look after this bear.” The beetles themselves (remember them?) are eensy-weensy—just 1/25th of an inch long—and, like the bears, come from Peru.

8. LAIA THE APE (PLIOBATES CATALONIAE)

Marta Palmero, Institut Catalá de Paleontologia Miquel Crusafont (ICP)

This species was identified from a single specimen, a female that traversed the forests of what is now Spain around 11.6 million years ago. The fruit trees in which she made her home are gone now, and have been replaced by a landfill, which is where her remains were found. The little ape’s nickname is a diminutive form of Eulàlia, a patron saint of Barcelona.

9. FLOWERING TREE (SIRDAVIDIA SOLANNONA)

Thomas Couvreur

We should never assume we’ve seen all there is to see. This flowering tree, completely new to science, was found just a few meters off the road in a national park in Gabon. Not only is this tree a new species, but it so differs from others that it was given its own genus, Sirdavidia, thereby entering the ranks of the many organisms named for Sir David Attenborough.

10. SPARKLEWING (UMMA GUMMA)

Jens Kipping

The number of known damselflies shot up last year, when a single publication described 60 new species, including the pretty sparklewings shown here. Scientists named this new member of the genus Umma after the Pink Floyd album Ummagumma.

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DNA Analysis of Loch Ness Could Reveal the Lake's Hidden Creatures
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Stakeouts, sonar studies, and a 24-hour video feed have all been set up in an effort to confirm the existence of the legendary Loch Ness Monster. Now, the Associated Press reports that an international team of scientists will use DNA analysis to learn what's really hiding in the depths of Scotland's most mysterious landmark.

The team, led by Neil Gemmell, who researches evolutionary genetics at the University of Otago in New Zealand, will collect 300 water samples from various locations and depths around the lake. The waters are filled with microscopic DNA fragments animals leave behind as they swim, mate, eat, poop, and die in the waters, and if Nessie is a resident, she's sure to leave bits of herself floating around as well.

After extracting the DNA from the organic material found in the water samples, the scientists plan to sequence it. The results will then be compared to the DNA profiles of known species. If there's evidence of an animal that's not normally found in the lake, or an entirely new species, the researchers will hopefully spot it.

Gemmell is a Nessie skeptic, and he says the point of the project isn't necessarily to discover new species. Rather, he wants to create a genetic profile of the lake while generating some buzz around the science behind it.

If the study goes according to plan, the database of Loch Ness's inhabitants should be complete by 2019. And though the results likely won't include a long-extinct plesiosaur, they may offer insights about other invasive species that now call the lake home.

[h/t AP]

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10 Biting Facts About Snapping Turtles
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Here in the Americas, lake monster legends are a dime a dozen. More than a few of them were probably inspired by these ancient-looking creatures. In honor of World Turtle Day, here are 10 things you might not have known about snapping turtles.

1. THE COMMON SNAPPING TURTLE IS NEW YORK'S OFFICIAL STATE REPTILE.

Elementary school students voted to appoint Chelydra serpentina in a 2006 statewide election. Weighing as much as 75 pounds in the wild (and 86 in captivity), this hefty omnivore’s natural range stretches from Saskatchewan to Florida.

2. ALLIGATOR SNAPPING TURTLES CAN BE LARGE. (VERY LARGE.)

An alligator snapping turtle
NorbertNagel, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Utterly dwarfing their more abundant cousin, alligator snappers (genus: Macrochelys) are the western hemisphere’s biggest freshwater turtles. The largest one on record, a longtime occupant of Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium, weighed 249 pounds.  

A monstrous 403-pounder was reported in Kansas during the Great Depression, though this claim was never confirmed.  

3. COMMON SNAPPERS HAVE LONGER NECKS AND SPIKIER TAILS.

Alligator snappers also display proportionately bigger heads and noses plus a trio of tall ridges atop their shells. Geographically, alligator snapping turtles are somewhat restricted compared to their common relatives, and are limited mainly to the southeast and Great Plains.

4. BOTH VARIETIES AVOID CONTACT WITH PEOPLE.

If given the choice between fight and flight, snapping turtles almost always distance themselves from humans. The animals spend the bulk of their lives underwater, steering clear of nearby Homo sapiens. However, problems can arise on dry land, where the reptiles are especially vulnerable. Females haul themselves ashore during nesting season (late spring to early summer). In these delicate months, people tend to prod and handle them, making bites inevitable.

5. YOU REALLY DON'T WANT TO GET BITTEN BY ONE. 

Snapping turtle jaw strength—while nothing to sneeze at—is somewhat overrated. Common snapping turtles can clamp down with up to 656.81 newtons (N) of force, though typical bites register an average of 209 N. Their alligator-like cousins usually exert 158 N. You, on the other hand, can apply 1300 N between your second molars.

Still, power isn’t everything, and neither type of snapper could latch onto something with the crushing force of a crocodile’s mighty jaws. Yet their sharp beaks are well-designed for major-league shearing. An alligator snapping turtle’s beak is capable of slicing fingers clean off and (as the above video proves) obliterating pineapples.

Not impressed yet? Consider the following. It’s often said that an adult Macrochelys can bite a wooden broom handle in half. Intrigued by this claim, biologist Peter Pritchard decided to play MythBuster. In 1989, he prodded a 165-pound individual with a brand new broomstick. Chomp number one went deep, but didn’t quite break through the wood. The second bite, though, finished the job.

6. SCIENTISTS RECENTLY DISCOVERED THAT THERE ARE THREE SPECIES OF ALLIGATOR SNAPPING TURTLES.

A 2014 study trisected the Macrochelys genus. For over a century, naturalists thought that there was just a single species, Macrochelys temminckii. Closer analysis proved otherwise, as strong physical and genetic differences exist between various populations. The newly-christened M. suwanniensis and M. apalachicolae are named after their respective homes—namely, the Suwannee and Apalachicola rivers. Further west, good old M. temminckii swims through the Mobile and the Mississippi.

7. THANKS TO A 19TH CENTURY POLITICAL CARTOON, COMMON SNAPPING TURTLES ARE ALSO KNOWN AS "OGRABMES." 

Snapping turtle cartoon
Urban~commonswiki via Wiki Commons // CC BY PD-US

Drawn by Alexander Anderson, this piece skewers Thomas Jefferson’s signing of the unpopular Embargo Act. At the president’s command, we see a snapping turtle bite some poor merchant’s hind end. Agitated, the victim calls his attacker “ograbme”—“embargo” spelled backwards.

8. ALLIGATOR SNAPPERS ATTRACT FISH WITH AN ORAL LURE …

You can’t beat live bait. Anchored to the Macrochelys tongue is a pinkish, worm-like appendage that fish find irresistible. Preferring to let food come to them, alligator snappers open their mouths and lie in wait at the bottoms of rivers and lakes. Cue the lure. When this protrusion wriggles, hungry fish swim right into the gaping maw and themselves become meals.

9.  … AND THEY FREQUENTLY EAT OTHER TURTLES. 


Complex01, WikimediaCommons

Alligator snappers are anything but picky. Between fishy meals, aquatic plants also factor into their diet, as do frogs, snakes, snails, crayfish, and even relatively large mammals like raccoons and armadillos. Other shelled reptiles are fair game, too: In one Louisiana study, 79.82% of surveyed alligator snappers had turtle remains in their stomachs.

10. YOU SHOULD NEVER PICK A SNAPPER UP BY THE TAIL.

Ideally, you should leave the handling of these guys to trained professionals. But what if you see a big one crossing a busy road and feel like helping it out? Before doing anything else, take a few moments to identify the turtle. If it’s an alligator snapper, you’ll want to grasp the lip of the upper shell (or “carapace”) in two places: right behind the head and right above the tail.

Common snappers demand a bit more finesse (we wouldn’t want one to reach back and nip you with that long, serpentine neck). Slide both hands under the hind end of the shell, letting your turtle’s tail dangle between them. Afterwards, clamp down on the carapace with both thumbs.

Please note that lifting any turtle by the tail can permanently dislocate its vertebrae. Additionally, remember to move the reptile in the same direction that it’s already facing. Otherwise, your rescue will probably turn right back around and try to cross the road again later. 

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