Friday, March 27, 2009

Ever Since Darwin

Here's my latest article for Orange Travel. The brief was to survey some of the stranger species discovered since Darwin's day. I had a slightly more esoteric list, which included the rather marvelous megamouth shark, but unfortunately we were limited to photos we could source from AP.

How many different species of animal and plant are there?

Astonishingly, we’re no nearer an answer today than we were when Charles Darwin attempted to explain the amazing diversity of life 150 years ago.

It’s estimated that there are an amazing 5-8 million species of beetle alone, with new species discovered every day. And it’s not just beetles. Scores of new birds, reptile and even mammals have been discovered in just the last decade. Darwin would have been awestruck...

To celebrate the great scientist’s bicentennial year, we take a tour of the planet and meet just a handful of the weird and wonderful new species discovered and named in the last 100 years.

From a hauntingly beautiful wild cat and a shrew with an odd nose to a dragon with gruesome feeding habits, find out what amazing species live where - and how to see them in the wild.

1. Komodo dragon

What is it? The largest living species of lizard, the Komodo dragon (Varanus komodensis) is a huge monitor first discovered by western science in 1910. It grows up to three metres long can weigh as much as 70kg.

Where does it live? These almost prehistoric creatures live on the island of Komodo and some neighbouring islands in Indonesia where they are the largest predator.

Evolutionary Selling Point (ESP): In 2005, a team of researchers discovered that the dragon’s bite was poisonous. As if that wasn’t enough, the dragon’s saliva also contains a bacterium which causes septicaemia; if the prey should survive the initial ambush, the dragon will simply wait for it to die of the resulting infection.

2. Grey-faced sengi

What is it? Discovered by motion-detecting cameras in 2005, the grey-faced sengi (Rhynchocyon udzungwensis) is a previously unknown – and unexpectedly large – species of elephant shrew and one of the handful of new mammals that get discovered every year.

Where does it live? This odd-looking creature (its Latin name means “snouted dog”) was found living in a small village community by scientists in the high-altitude Ndundulu forest in Tanzania’s Udzungaw Mountains.

Evolutionary Selling Point (ESP): Elephant shrews are very hard to see, being both incredibly wary and highly camouflaged. They build special pathways through the forest which they patrol looking for insects, using that long snout as a sense organ, and down which they dash if threatened.

3. Yeti crab

What is it? The oceans, which cover over seven-tenths of the earth’s surface, continue to reveal bizarre new species. This shaggy crab was discovered by a Californian team diving in the South Pacific Ocean and was quickly dubbed the yeti crab (Kiwi hirsuta) due to its covering of blonde hairs or cetae.

Where does it live? The yeti crab was discovered by submariners some 900 miles south of Easter Island at a depth of more than 7,000 feet.

Evolutionary Selling Point (ESP): The crab, which looks more like a lobster, lives on hydrothermal vents near to the mid-ocean ridge. It is thought that the crab, which feeds on green algae and shrimp, uses its extraordinary covering of hairs to filter out the poisonous minerals being continually belched out of the vents.

4. Golden-mantled tree kangaroo

What is it? First described by scientist Pavel German in 1990, the golden-mantled tree kangaroo (Dendrolagus pulcherrimus) is named for the colouration on its shoulders. This adorable creature leaves in the mountain forests of Papua New Guinea - a habitat thatʼs shrinking every year.

Where does it live? In the Torricelli Mountains of Papua New Guinea and the nearby Foja Mountains in Indonesia.

Evolutionary Selling Point (ESP): Newly discovered animals are often at risk of becoming extinct before they can be fully described by science. This highly specialised animal lives in the trees in high mountain regions and was previously much more widespread. Itʼs now confined to two small regions, making this perhaps the most endangered of all marsupials.

5. Bornean clouded leopard

What is it? “Scientists Discover New Beetle” is not exactly headline news. But the discovery of a new species of big cat? That’s a big deal. Although long known to local tribes, western science first heard of this cat’s existence from a tantalising description by a French naturalist in the 19th century. But it wasn’t until 2007 that existence of the Bornean clouded leopard (Neofelis diardi) was finally confirmed.

Where does it live? It keeps itself to itself in the deep tropical forests in Borneo and Sumatra.

Evolutionary Selling Point (ESP): The Bornean clouded leopard has a local name which means “tree branch tiger”, suggesting that this immensely secretive feline is a skilled climber. It’s also effectively camouflaged in the dark undergrowth of the forest.

6. Nectophrynoides sp.

What is it? This fantastically-coloured toad is the most recently-discovered animal on our list - so new that it hasn’t yet been given a scientific name yet. It belongs to a genus of toads that are found only in Tanzania. It has a distinctive “plink” call that can be heard echoing throughout the valley it calls home.

Where does it live? This particular genus of toad all live in the jungles of the South Nguru region of Tanzania, with this species being further restricted to a single valley.

Evolutionary Selling Point (ESP): All the toads of this genus have one characteristic that distinguishes them from other toads. The females are viviparous, which means they give birth to live young, making them the only toads in the world not to lay eggs – an advantage when there are plenty of egg-eating predators around. This particular species is covered in glands, bumps and assorted protuberances. Why? To date, no-one knows.

7. Swimming batfish

What is it? Discovered in 1958, the swimming batfish (Ogcocephalus darwini) is a kind of angler fish that makes its living on the ocean floor, feeding on fish, crustaceans and polychaete worms.

Where does it live? Darwin would have kicked himself – the swimming batfish was discovered in the waters around the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific ocean.

Evolutionary Selling Point (ESP): Despite its name, the swimming batfish is not a good swimmer. Instead, it uses its spiny pectoral fins to walk on the ocean floor. Like other angler fish, the batfish dangles a lure to catch its prey. But, instead of using bioluminescence like its cousins, the batfish secretes chemicals into the water which many smaller fish find irresistible.

8. Samkos bush frog

What is it? First described by a team of scientists in 2007, the Samkos bush frog (Chiromantis samkosensis) is a new species of moss frog known from only a single specimen. The frog’s appearance is down to its translucent skin, through which it’s possible to see its green blood and turquoise-coloured bones.

Where does it live? In the remote Cardamom Mountains of Cambodia.

Evolutionary Selling Point (ESP): Very little is known about this frog. It’s quite possible that it’s already extinct because its habitat is under threat from local road building. Frogs like this one are able to breathe through their skin, which must be kept moist at all times, else they will suffocate.

9. Lepilemur seali

What is it? Even though primates are our closest cousins, new species are still being discovered. Lepilemur seali is a brand new species of lemur, first described in 2005 by veterinarian David Louis and yet to be given a common name.

Where does it live? All lemurs live on the island of Madagascar off the eastern coast of Africa.

Evolutionary Selling Point (ESP): Lemurs belong to an ancient family of primates called the prosimians. They arrived in Madagascar while it was still attached to the African mainland. When the island split around 160 million years ago, the lemurs were left in isolation to develop into hundreds of separate species. It’s thought their name derives from a Latin word meaning “spirits of the night”; if you look into their huge and haunting eyes, it’s easy to see why.

10. Smoky honeyeater

What is it? Proving that new species of bird are being discovered every year, the spectacular wattled smoky honeyeater (Melipotes carolae) was among a number of new species unearthed in 2005 by a team of researchers trekking in Western New Guinea (the Indonesian territory of Irian Jaya).

Where does it live? In the remote forests of the Foja mountain range in Western New Guinea, at altitudes of above 1,000ft.

Evolutionary Selling Point (ESP): Honeyeaters are a large family of birds similar to hummingbirds. Both families feed on the nectar of plants, though the honeyeaters are yet to master the art of hovering. Males of this are able to flush its distinctive wattle as a way of attracting the opposite sex.


shana h said...

Word of warning... Be careful not to kiss a Nectophrynoides - you might end up with a ginger prince.

MisterBarrington said...

What a thing of wonder is evolution! These are truly beautiful creatures.

I wonder what they taste like?