2011: a fantastic year for discovering new species!

Matilda’s horned viper. Photo by: Tim Davenport.

Despite some conservationists warning about the possible problems of unearthing new species to poachers in the media, their existence should celebrated by conservationists and animal lovers alike! Here is just a selection of some of the good news we have had from researchers this year:

  • Frogs the size of Tic Tacs belonging to the genus Paedophryne were discovered in Papa New Guinea
  • Three different species of pit vipers – two in Southeast Asia and the beautiful Matilda’s horned viper in Tanzania
  • A new species of bottlenose dolphin in Southeast Australia
  • The Italian sparrow was finally confirmed as a distinct species
  • A new species of titi monkey in Brazil
  • In Vietnam, researchers were shocked by the new peculiar species, the ferret – badger
  • Over 300 species of flora and fauna were described by the California Academy of Sciences and other scientific institutions in the Philippines
  • A colourful new species of mushroom in Borneo named after SpongeBob SquarePants

This is just a selection of the new species that researchers have discovered this year. With camera traps and DNA analysis becoming common practice whilst identifying new species, hopefully similar discoveries will continue throughout 2012!

Haley Dolton

X FACTOR OF THE ANIMAL WORLD

With all the hype of the X Factor in the media every week, a comparison between the talent of the natural world and the individuals that will appear on the show can offer an interesting comparison!

Mimic – each year a contestant will try and impersonate their favourite singer on the show for maximum effect. However, they are never going to be as good as mimicking abilities of the lyrebird which is endemic to Australia. Of all the passerines, the lyrebird has the most complex musculature surrounding the syrinx allowing this species to imitate a variety of natural and man made sounds including car alarms and chainsaws.

Loudest – some of the characters on the X Factor do not suffer from shyness in terms of their singing volume and neither does the blue whale. The blue whale call can reach up to approximately 188 decibels and can travel for hundreds of miles underwater. That is the equivalent of the noise produced by a rocket launch pad. If humans stood near to this without ear protection the noise would cause irreversible damage to our hearing.

Specialist – the occasional contestant will try and do something different during their audition to get noticed including rapping and beat boxing. An army of frogs all croaking at alternating times may give the beat boxers a run for their money as different pitches and styles are combined. The sound is produced via a space in the throat called the glottis which is surrounded by the vocal chords and arytenoid cartilage. The loud noise reverberates around the expanding vocal sac causing the croak to become louder.

Sounds to make you shudder – during the first few weeks of the X Factor, there will be plenty of contestants who think they can sing resulting in cutting comments from the judges. Vocalisations from some species have the same affect on people such as a cockerel crow or a noisy dog living next door to you. The near – threatened aye – aye gets a raw deal if it is heard in its native Madagascar due to superstitions. Indigenous people think of the aye – aye as a symbol of death and as a consequence, they will dispatch of any if they are seen or heard.

Surprising sound from an unlikely source – many auditions show macho men singing in high pitched tones or beautiful opera performed from an unexpected individual. In nature, various species also make surprising noises. A rabbit will generate a high pitched squeal when in distress and cheetahs make a chirping noise, quite dissimilar to the roar of most big cats. This chirp is a very intense noise and can be heard approximately one mile away!

By Haley Dolton

A CROAK FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE

Preserved specimens at museums always draw a crowd due to the extraordinary rarity to see whole animals preserved in liquid. Not only are they are crowd pleasers; they allow museums to catalog species we know exist on this planet.  An exciting new discovery by graduate student Tina Cheng and her team will put museum specimens to another great use.

The main focus of this study was the fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd) and it’s spread across Mexico and Central America. Bd causes chytridiomycosis, a disease that is currently devastating amphibian populations with approximately 40% of total species affected by it. The disease changes both morphology and behavior and eventually leads to death.

Museum specimens are normally preserved in formaldehyde, which interacts with proteins found in DNA. This allows the fixation of body tissues to occur. Ms. Cheng and her team were able to use old specimens from the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology in Berkeley, Calif, to establish where and when the deadly fungus Bd first appeared.

Swabs were taken from frog and salamander specimens (collected in the 1960s) that inhabited the mountains of southern Mexico, western Guatemala and the cloud forests of Monteverde, Costa Rica. Interestingly, the swabs showed the presence of Bd corresponding with the earliest reports of Bd related deaths of amphibians in the wild.

Ms. Cheng and her team were effectively able to take a ‘freeze frame’ of time to show the spread if the disease. It appears Bd spread in a southerly direction across Central America in the 1970s – 1980s.

Using museum specimens in molecular research is a massive step forward in research science, as it was previously believed formaldehyde would denature the proteins needed for testing in DNA. Encouragingly, this study shows tiny stretches of DNA can survive the preserving process, leaving the opportunity for additional research to be conducted using museum specimens. As scientists are currently in the process of establishing how Bd spreads, how to stop it and how to treat infected individuals, this new research method could not have come at a more important time.