Discovering a new species is always exciting – it shows that much of our world remains to be explored and described. This year, too, scientists discovered and described several new species of animals and plants, including 13 new dancing peacock spiders, a new crab that was found in a pet market, a new species of whale, a tarantula that shoots balls of barbed hair at enemies, and one bird that is now 13 distinct species.
Unfortunately, many of the new species are already on the brink of extinction, threatened by poaching, wildlife trade, habitat destruction and diseases.
Below are Mongabay’s picks for top new species discovered in 2016 (in no particular order). Note: for each entry, the publication and author are listed in parentheses.
1. New species of beaked whale (Mongabay, by Jeremy Hance)
When a dead whale washed up in the Alaskan Aleutian Islands in 2014, people believed that it was a Baird’s beaked whale (Berardius bairdii). But subsequent DNA tests showed that the whale is very likely a new species of beaked whale, smaller and darker than its cousin, the Baird’s, with a larger dorsal fin and a distinctly shaped skull. The whale appears to be rare, although Japanese whalers – who refer to the whale as karasu, or raven, due to its dark colour – claim to have seen it in life. However, very little is known about the new beaked whale’s behaviour, and scientists are yet to give it a new name.
2. Thirteen new dancing peacock spiders (Mongabay, by Shreya Dasgupta, Mike Gaworecki)
In two separate studies, researchers announced the discovery of several new species of brilliantly colored peacock spiders – miniscule spiders with elaborate dance moves, known only from Australia. In one paper, biologist Jürgen C. Otto, and spider expert David Knowles described seven new species of peacock spiders, including Maratus vespa, a spider with a distinct pattern of wasp on its tail flap, and M. bubo, which seems to have the face of a horned owl inscribed on its back. In a second paper, researchers Barbara Baehr and Robert Whyte described six new species of peacock spiders, including Maratus lincunxin, named after Chinese-trained dancer and Queensland Ballet artistic director Li Cunxin.
3. Rare Devil’s orchid (Mongabay, by Shreya Dasgupta)
Discovered in the forests of southern Colombia, the new species of reddish-violet orchid Telipogon diabolicus has a wine-red or maroon reproductive structure that resembles a devil’s head. The new orchid is known only from a single population of 30 orchids found, and is already on the verge of extinction. The lone population is found in a vulnerable habitat close to the main road Pasto-Mocoa.
4. Three new species of mouse lemurs (Mongabay, by Mike Gaworecki)
This year, scientists used genetic analysis to describe three new species of mouse lemurs that live in the South and East Madagascar: Microcebus boraha, Microcebus ganzhorni, and Microcebus manitatra. This brings the number of known mouse lemurs – the world’s tiniest primates – to 24. All three mouse lemurs are small, nocturnal animals with brown fur and large eyes.
5. Deepest fish species discovered by deep-diving (Mongabay, by Shreya Dasgupta)
At a depth of 150 meters in the West Pacific, off the coast of Batangas, Luzon, Philippine Islands, scientists have discovered a new species of strikingly coloured fish that belongs to a group of fish called groppos. The fish was discovered without the use of submarines or other indirect methods, making it the deepest new fish discovery done by diving to date. The scientists have named the pink-and-yellow-hued fish Brianne’s Groppo or Grammatonotus brianne.
6. Silver boa that is “on its way to extinction” (Mongabay, by Mike Gaworecki)
This new silver boa (Chilabothrus argentum) was found in a remote corner of the Bahamian Archipelago called the Conception Island Bank. It is a nonvenomous, constricting snake, and one of the most endangered boid snakes globally, a group that includes boa constrictors and anacondas. Scientists believe that it should be listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List.
7. Rabbit-like pika (Mongabay, by Shreya Dasgupta)
Discovered in the remote upper reaches of the Eastern Himalayas in Sikkim, India, the cuddly new rabbit-like animal, Sikkim pika (Ochotona sikimeria), was previously classified as a sub-species of the Moupin pika (Ochotona thibetana). But the two species are not even closely related, scientists say. The new species was identified by analysing genetic data sampled from its poop, and comparing it with the DNA of other related pikas. The new species seems to be abundant in Sikkim and may not be immediately threatened by extinction.
8. Carribean plants named after James Bond (Mongabay, by Shreya Dasgupta)
Biologists discovered an entire new sub-group of plants in Central America and the Caribbean Islands that they have named Jamesbondia. The name does not honour the popular spy character James Bond. Instead, the group gets its name from notable American ornithologist James Bond (1900-1989), who was an expert in Caribbean birds and author of the book Birds of the West Indies. Ian Fleming – also a keen birdwatcher – is believed to have used the ornithologist’s name for his fictional spy series.
9. Giant air-breathing fish (National Geographic, by Brian Clark Howard)
A new species of a giant arapaima – massive fish that breathe through primitive lungs – may be lurking in the backwaters of the Amazon. National Geographic explorer Donald J Stewart and his colleagues claim to have found genetic evidence of at least one new species of arapaima in southwestern Guyana. Stewart believes there may be more distinct species of arapaimas currently unknown to science. Arapaimas, which can grow up to 10 feet long and weight 440 pounds, are little-studied and highly endangered.
10. Tarantula that shoots balls of barbed hairs at enemies (Mongabay, by Shreya Dasgupta)
The new species of tarantula, Kankuamo marquezi, is a badass. Discovered in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Maria mountain range in Colombia, the tarantula subdues its enemies by shooting a ball of barbed hairs into the air that it releases by rubbing its hind legs against its belly vigorously. The hairs have sharp tips that can then penetrate into the enemy’s skin or mucous membrane, causing irritation. The scientists have named the spider, K. marquezi, after famous Colombian writer, Gabriel García Márquez, winner of the 1982 Nobel Prize in Literature for One Hundred Years of Solitude.
11. Two species of Magnolia discovered online (BBC)
Thanks to photographs on Arkive, a website that hosts thousands of pictures of flora and fauna, two naturalists could identify two previously unrecorded species of Magnolia, one of Earth’s oldest flowering plants. Roberto Pedraza Ruiz had photographed several plants within eastern Mexico’s Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve in 2010 and uploaded it to Arkive. After seeing the photos, biologist José Antonio Vázquez, living 200 miles away, identified two of the plants as new species of Magnolia. One of the species, Magnolia rzedowskiana, was named after Jerzy Rzedoswski, a Mexican botanist, while the second species will be named Magnolia pedrazae, in honour of its photographer.
12. New Scops owl (Mongabay, by Mike Gaworecki)
Scientists have discovered a new species of Scops owl on Príncipe, one of the two major islands that make up the country of São Tomé and Príncipe in the Gulf of Guinea off the western coast of Central Africa. The owl had been long rumoured to exist by researchers. But Belgian ornithologist Philippe Verbelen confirmed the presence of the owl during an expedition in the forests of Príncipe, during which he photographed at least two different individuals. The owl is yet to be formally described.
13. Parasitic orchid that never blooms (Mongabay, by Shreya Dasgupta)
The new plant – named Gastrodia kuroshimensis – was discovered on the Japanese island of Kuroshima. It occurs in the dark understory of forests where little light penetrates. So instead of using sunlight or photosynthesis to generate nutrients, the plant parasitizes the fungi in the forest soil for its daily dose of nutrition. The new plant also produces dark greenish-brown flowers that remain closed throughout the entire flowering period, relying completely on self-pollination within closed buds.
14. Spider that looks like the ‘Sorting Hat’ from Harry Potter (Mongabay, by Shreya Dasgupta)
Gryffindor! The biologists who discovered this new spider in a forest in central Western Ghats, India, are big fans of the Harry Potter franchise. Surprised by how closely the spider resembles the magical sorting hat, they chose to name it Eriovixia gryffindori after the hat’s owner Godric Gryffindor, one of the four founders of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The tiny spider is an excellent mimic, and is adept at resembling dried foliage.
15. Six new deep-sea animals discovered in undersea hot springs (Mongabay, by Shreya Dasgupta)
Around hydrothermal vents in Longqi (‘Dragon’s Breath’), 1,242 miles southeast of Madagascar, a research team has discovered six new species of deep-sea animals that are nourished by hot fluids gushing out of the vent chimneys. The new species include a hairy-chested ‘Hoff’ crab, closely related to ‘Hoff’ crabs at Antarctic vents; two species of snail and a species of limpet, and two species of deep-sea worms.
16. Three new miniature salamanders are already headed for extinction (Mongabay, by Shreya Dasgupta)
Scientists have described three new species of miniature salamanders, occurring in the remote mountains of Oaxaca in Mexico, that are smaller than a matchstick. These tiny creatures belong to the elusive genus Thorius, members of which are the smallest four-legged animals on earth. The group is also one of the most endangered genus of amphibians in the world, and the three newly discovered species are already on the verge of extinction, researchers say. The new salamanders have been named the pine-dwelling minute salamander (Thorius pinicola), the long-tailed minute salamander (Thorius longicaudus) and the heroic minute salamander (Thorius tlaxiacus).
17. Crab discovered in Chinese fish market (Mongabay, by Shreya Dasgupta)
Colorful freshwater crabs are being increasingly traded in South China’s pet markets. At one such ornamental fish market in northern Guandong, China, researchers collected a new species of maroon-brown crab with reddish-purple claws and legs, which belongs to both a new species and a new genus. The scientists have named the newly described crab Yuebeipotamon calciatile, its species name “calciatile” referring to the pools of limestone hill streams where the crabs are found.
18. New millipede has 414 legs, 4 penises (Mongabay, by Shreya Dasgupta)
Scientists have discovered a new species of a very “leggy” millipede inside a dark, marble cavern in Sequoia National Park, California. The tiny thread-like millipede has 414 legs, and is cousin to the 750-legged Illacme plenipes, the leggiest known millipede on earth, researchers say. It has some other odd features: its 20 millimetres-long body is covered in spines, tubercles, and silk-secreting hairs, and four of its legs are modified into penises or gonopods that it uses to transfer sperm into the female. Researchers have named the new species Illacme tobini after Ben Tobin, a cave specialist and hydrologist at Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona.
19. Smallest of giant flowers (Mongabay, by Shreya Dasgupta)
The parasitic plant, Rafflesia or corpse flower, produces the world’s largest flowers. Now, on Luzon Island in the Philippines, a team of scientists have discovered the smallest of these giant flowers. Some Rafflesia flowers can grow up to a metre and a half in diameter. But the newly discovered flower has an average diameter of 9.73 cm when fully expanded, making it a “dwarf” among all known Rafflesia species. The discovery was serendipitous – researchers tripped on the flower while walking in a forest on Luzon Island. Only two populations of R. consueloae are known from two mountain sites, Mt Balukbok and Mt Pantaburon, and the species may be Critically Endangered.
20. One bird that became 13 (Motherboard, by Kaleigh Rogers)
For a long time, scientists believed that a single bird, the red bellied pitta (Pitta erythrogaster) that lives in the Philippines, was also found on a small island off the coast of Papua New Guinea, on Indonesia’s Banggai and Sula Islands, and in Buru, Ambon and Seram in the south Moluccas. But a detailed genetic analysis and taxonomic review of the species revealed that the birds lumped under red-bellied pitta are actually 13 distinct species found around southeast Asia. This splitting of the species has important conservation implications, researchers say. The original red bellied pitta was classified as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List. But a review of the population status of the new species shows that at least three are threatened and at risk of extinction.
This article first appeared on Mongabay.