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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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Animals
Why Tiny 'Hedgehog Highways' Are Popping Up Around London
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iStock

Hedgehogs as pets have gained popularity in recent years, but in many parts of the world, they're still wild animals. That includes London, where close to a million of the creatures roam streets, parks, and gardens, seeking out wood and vegetation to take refuge in. Now, Atlas Obscura reports that animal activists are transforming the city into a more hospitable environment for hedgehogs.

Barnes Hedgehogs, a group founded by Michel Birkenwald in the London neighborhood of Barnes four years ago, is responsible for drilling tiny "hedgehog highways" through walls around London. The passages are just wide enough for the animals to climb through, making it easier for them to travel from one green space to the next.

London's wild hedgehog population has seen a sharp decline in recent decades. Though it's hard to pin down accurate numbers for the elusive animals, surveys have shown that the British population has dwindled by tens of millions since the 1950s. This is due to factors like human development and habitat destruction by farmers who aren't fond of the unattractive shrubs, hedges, and dead wood that hedgehogs use as their homes.

When such environments are left to grow, they can still be hard for hedgehogs to access. Carving hedgehog highways through the stone partitions and wooden fences bordering parks and gardens is one way Barnes Hedgehogs is making life in the big city a little easier for its most prickly residents.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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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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