Moths to monkeys: 503 new species identified by UK scientists

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Scarab beetles from New Guinea, seaweed from the Falklands and a new species of monkey found on an extinct volcano in Myanmar are among 503 species newly identified by scientists at the Natural History Museum.

The museum’s work in 2020 describing species previously unknown to science includes naming new lichens, wasps, barnacles, miniature tarantulas and a lungless worm salamander.

“In a year when the global mass of biodiversity is being outweighed by human-made mass it feels like a race to document what we are losing,” said Dr Tim Littlewood, executive director of science at the Natural History Museum. “Five hundred and three newly discovered species reminds us we represent a single, inquisitive, and immensely powerful species with the fate of many others in our hands.”

Scientists have named nearly 2m different forms of life on Earth but there may be far more than the 8.7m species previously estimated, with DNA barcoding techniques revealing hitherto unsuspected diversity in ostensibly similar creatures.

Bombus tibeticus is thought to be one of the highest living bumblebees

Implausible twists of fate have played a role in some discoveries. A new parasitic worm, Pseudoacanthocephalus goodmani, was found in the faeces of a guttural toad after the amphibian was accidentally flown from its native Mauritius to Cambridge in a tourist’s luggage, even surviving a cycle in a washing machine before being spotted.

The museum’s collection of 80m specimens has also assisted some new discoveries. One new species, a lungless worm salamander, Oedipina ecuatoriana, is known only from a single specimen collected more than 100 years ago and kept by the museum. These amphibians burrow through rainforest soils and breathe through their skin.

Ken Norris, head of life sciences at the Natural History Museum, said the collections helped scientists to be certain they were finding creatures that were new to science. “These discoveries go to show the vital role that natural history collections around the world continue to play in describing new species and the hidden diversity that is contained within the collections,” he said.

The critically endangered Popa langur

The most spectacular discovery of 2020 was the popa langur, Trachypithecus popa, a new species of monkey that was previously confused with another species. It lives on the side of an extinct volcano in Myanmar and was identified using skins and bones that have been in the museum’s collection for over 100 years. It is already considered to be critically endangered, with only 200 to 260 individuals left in the wild.

“We hope that the naming of the species will help in its conservation,” said Roberto Portela Miguez, senior mammal curator at the museum, who helped to describe the new species.

It has been a good year for discovering more amphibian and reptile species, with the museum’s scientists helping to identify a crested lizard from Borneo, two new species of frog and an impressive nine new snakes, including Trimeresurus davidi, a beautiful lime-green viper.

A new seaweed species discovered, Corallina chamberlainiae, a delicate-looking seaweed found in chilly south Atlantic waters off the Falkland Islands and Tristan da Cunha, reveals a connectivity between these places despite the islands being 2,500 miles (4,000km) apart.

The most numerous new discoveries were among the order of beetles, with 170 new species identified, including a cohort of scarab beetles from New Guinea, riffle beetles from Brazil and a minuscule marsh-loving beetle from Malawi.

The new species of pit viper is only found in the Nicobar Archipelago in the Indian Ocean

The museum’s experts also identified 70 new wasp species and three new bees, including Bombus tibeticus, one of the highest-dwelling species of bumblebee in the world, discovered at 5,640 metres (18,500ft) above sea level on the Tibetan plateau in Mongolia. There have also been nine new species of moths, six new species of centipedes, nine flatworms, one butterfly and 10 bryozoans, tiny aquatic creatures sometimes known as “moss animals”.

The museum’s scientists have also this year named 122 new fossil species and 10 new minerals – which is significant given that there are only about 6,000 known species of mineral.

One of the new minerals, kernowite, is emerald green and so far found in just one location – down an old mine in Cornwall that has since been closed and built on.

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