By Alison Ballance
A cart-wheeling spider from Morocco. A Japanese pufferfish, whose mysterious underwater ‘crop circles’ puzzled scientists for nearly 20 years. And the Chinese bone-house wasp, which uses dead ants to protect its nest.
What these animals have in common is that they’ve just been recognised in the Top 10 New Species for 2015.
The global list is compiled annually by the International Institute for Species Exploration, at the State University of New York. It’s a hotly contested honour, as the Top Ten are chosen from nearly 18,000 new species described by scientists during the previous year.
And it’s not just animals on the list. Dr Pieter Pelser and Dr Julie Barcelona, from the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Canterbury, described an unusual plant from the Philippines.
“It’s a quite bizarre species,” says Dr Pelser. “It looks more like a coral colony than a plant, and because it looks so much like a coral we named it Balanophora coralliformis.”
“It’s a parasitic plant, so it taps into the roots of nearby plants to steal their water and nutrients for its own use.”
Botanists Dr Pelser and Dr Barcelona found the plant on a remote mountain on the Philippine Island of Luzon. They knew of its existence from photos that had been taken by a Filipino colleague, and they recognised that it was different from any other species of Balanophora known to science. “We had an opportunity to do field work in the area the photo was taken, and fortunately we got lucky and we found it.”
The Top 10 New Species list is released each year to mark the birthday of Carolus Linnaeus, an 18th century botanist who‘s considered the father of taxonomy. Dr Quentin Wheeler, President of the College of Environmental Science and Forestry at the State University of New York says the purpose of the list is to draw attention to the world’s remarkable biodiversity.
“The purpose of the Top Ten is to bring attention to how little we know about life on earth. In 250 years we’ve discovered fewer than two million kinds of plants and animals, and the best estimates are there another 10 million awaiting discovery. And many of those will inevitably disappear before they’ve ever been discovered and given a name.”
The peculiar parasitic plant was almost immediately declared endangered after it was discovered, as fewer than 50 plants have been found.
Not all the new species are rare. Two turned out to be hiding in broad daylight – a 23-centimetre long stick insect is common in a Vietnamese town, while Mexican villagers often use a beautiful – and new to science - bromeliad in their elaborate Christmas altar displays.
Also on the Top 10 New Species list:
A small feathered dinosaur – nick-named the ‘chicken from hell’ – and described from three fossil skeletons found in Dakota, USA.
Dendrogramma enigmatica - a mysterious marine creature from Australia that may be an entirely new phylum of animals, somehow related to jellyfish and comb jellies.
An Indonesian fanged frog that, unlike almost all other frogs, gives birth to live tadpoles.
And a beautiful Japanese sea slug that comes in shades of blue, red and gold.