Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Finding new species in 2015-how it happens

Articles like this one from Mother Nature Network, titled 9 newly discovered species, pop up from time to time about new organisms that have been found by scientists. Just recently a previously unknown species of fish was discovered no less than five miles below the ocean's surface. New primate species are even discovered, although finding such large species is very rare.

Newly identified Rana kauffeldi Photo credit: Brian Curry
Wait, how is that we're still discovering completely new animals?  Scientists estimate that there are millions, yes millions, of species we still don't know about. While some of these unknown species are reptiles or rodents, most of them are less charismatic. Many species of insect have yet to be identified and many bacteria and plants are unknown too.

New species are often discovered when scientists look at the genome of one species only to find out that one species is really two or more separate species. For example, Bornean and Sumatran orangutans were once thought to be one species. No attention was given to breeding Bornean orangutans only with Bornean orangutans, and many zoos now have hybrid orangs because of this. It was through genetic analysis that we discovered that each island held its own, distinct species.

Some of the time scientists do discover completely new species that are unheard of to science. This usually happens in far-away and poorly studied areas of the globe. Scientists talk to locals in remote areas and hear about a species that doesn't match descriptions of known species. Behavior, anatomy, reproduction, and even vocalizations are all examined when determining if something is a new species. Scientists hunt around in the jungle, struggle to obtain a photograph or grab a sample specimen, and ideally consult with as many other experts as possible to make sure that this is in fact a new, distinct species. It's important to compare a possible new species with existing species to ensure that there are enough differences to satisfy calling something an entirely new species.

Classification of Saimiri oerstedii
A species is a group of organisms that are similar and capable of interbreeding. (To learn more about what the term species means in biology, check out this great page and this one from Berkley.) A species is given a Latin binomial name. Examples of Latin binomial names you might be familiar with include Homo sapiens for humans, Pan troglodytes for chimpanzees, and Drosophila melanogaster for the common fruit fly. When we discover new organisms, it is the taxonomists who study those organisms and decide how they should be named. Taxonomy is the branch of science that includes the classification, identification, and description of organisms. You can see the classification for a species of squirrel monkey to the right. Taxonomy may sound a little boring, but classifying animals isn't always black and white. There's currently a debate about the classification of capuchin monkeys that you can read more about in this article.

So the next time you click on a link about the ten most interesting species discovered in 2014, you understand how it is species are found, how it's determined that those species are distinct, and how they are named.

Food for thought: What do you think is the best way to determine if a species is separate or distinct from another? Would you rely on genetics? Or look at the behaviors of the animal? Is whether or not the two populations coexist in the wild important? There are many things to consider!

News stories about recently discovered species:

Head to LiveScience to read about a species of monkey first spotted in 2007.
Read about a coughing frog species that was recently discovered or
five new bird species discovered in 2014.

No comments:

Post a Comment