Despite over 1.2 million species on earth having already been described, new species are constantly being discovered. With the improvement of molecular and imaging techniques and the ability to access areas previously assumed impossible to explore, researchers have new tools and opportunities for identifying new organisms. The discovery of new species can unveil novel compounds, insight into evolutionary processes, or inform conservation decisions. As the planet is rapidly changing from deforestation, habitat loss, and climate change, it is more important than ever to discover and record the rich diversity of life on earth.
From mosquito-borne viruses in the Northern Territory of Australia to miniature chameleons in Madagascar, PLOS ONE has been highlighting descriptions and discoveries of new species throughout the past decade. The New Species collection takes a tour around the globe, bringing attention to reports of fungi, dolphin, and fish species from South America, wasp and amphibian species from Asia, anemone and crab species from Antarctica, monkey and chameleon species from Africa, and a new virus from Australia.
This collection starts by exploring papers describing three new species discovered in South America, where there is rich biodiversity in the amazon rainforest and many unexplored and unstudied regions. On this continent, one of the most strange and alarming insect parasites can be found: zombie-ant fungi, Ophiocordyceps. These fungi infect carpenter ants and compel them to climb to a high spot on a plant where they anchor themselves at the time of death, while a fungal fruiting body erupts from their head as a single stalk. Evans et al. 2011 found hidden diversity in this genus, four distinct Ophiocordyceps species (Ophiocordyceps camponoti-rufipedis, Ophiocordyceps camponoti-balzani, Ophiocordyceps camponoti-melanotici, Ophiocordyceps camponoti-novogranadensis), that parasitize specific carpenter ant species, suggesting coevolution. Because entomopathogenic fungi, such as Ophiocordyceps, have very narrow host specificity, they have become an attractive potential alternative method for insect pest control (1).
In a study by Hrbek et al. 2014 in Brazil, the authors highlight how little we know about the diversity of river dolphins, Inia sp. Using microsatellites, mitochondrial DNA, and cranial measurements, the authors were able to identify an isolated population of river dolphins in the Araguaia-Tocantins River basin, as a separate species, Inia araguaiaensis. These dolphins were found to be genetically and morphologically distinct from dolphins in the Amazon river basin, providing valuable information for the conservation of this endangered genus.
In Argentina, Teran et al. 2017 found a new fish species, Trichomycterus ytororo. This new species lives in waterfalls in the Tabay stream in the Paraná River basin, a hot spot for diversity where many new fish species have recently been identified.
Though at first glance it may seem to be a desolate and barren continent, Antarctica hosts a plethora of diverse organisms and new species are routinely being identified as technologies are developed to overcome limitations to research in these harsh and difficult conditions. Using a remotely operated submersible vehicle, Daly et al. 2013 explored the previously undocumented ecosystem below the Ross ice shelf in Antarctica. During their exploration, a new species of anemone was found living with most of its body buried inside the ice shelf and just the tips of its tentacles reaching out. The remarkable ability of these organisms to withstand freezing environments remains a mystery yet to be solved.
Deep in the Southern Ocean in the thermal vents of the East Scotia Ridge, Antarctica, a new species of Yeti crab, Kiwa tyleri, was discovered by Thatje et al. 2015. This fuzzy looking crab most likely subsists by using specialized hairs, or setae, to capture chemosynthetic bacteria that also live near thermal vents or they might farm their own bacteria like another Yeti crab species, Kiwa puravida. K. puravida, first described in PLOS ONE by Thurber et al. 2011, farms its own bacteria by waving its claws in fluid leaking from methane seeps. The authors describe how the ‘dancing’ movements promote growth of epibiotic bacteria, the main food source of the crabs, which the authors confirmed by isotopic and lipid analysis. This species was discovered off the coast of Costa Rica, a bit of a jump from Antarctica.
The African continent contains regions with some of the highest levels of biodiversity (2). Like many regions around the world, biodiversity in Africa is threatened by habitat loss and deforestation. In a very rare event, a new species of monkey, Cercopithecus lomamiensis, common name Lesula, was discovered in the Democratic Republic of Congo. After observing a captive rescued individual monkey and hearing stories from local hunters, Hart et al. 2012 morphologically and phylogenetically characterized this previously undescribed species. The authors also discuss a distinct dawn chorus of booms from the newly described Lesula, in addition to specific coloring, behavior, and ecology.
Glaw et al. 2012 identified four new species of miniaturized leaf chameleons in Northern Madagascar based molecular, morphological and morphometric differences (Brookesia confidens, B. desperate, B. micra, and B. tristis). Some of these chameleons are small enough to fit on the tip of a match. The authors note the importance of studying extreme sizes within groups of organisms to obtain insight into biological adaptations as well as morphological and ecological constraints. Madagascar is considered a biodiversity hotspot and the biggest threat to the reptiles of Madagascar is habitat loss (3). Identifying the entirety of reptilian diversity in Madagascar will help guide conservation efforts.
In this collection, two new species from India are highlighted. Despite high human population density, India is biological hotspot. A new braconid wasp species, Bracon garugaphagae, from India was found to first parasitize gall forming insects and then consume the Garuga pinnata gall tissue itself. Ranjith et al. 2016 explain that this interesting new wasp is the first recorded braconid species whose larvae display both entophagy and phytophagy, parasitizing both insects and plants.
Though India has many protected areas, Seshradri et al. 2016 conducted a survey of amphibians in one of the unprotected areas dominated by laterite rock formations on the west coast of India. They discovered a new species of frog in this unprotected area and characterized it using vocalizations, molecular, and morphometric analyses. Due to its limited range, the authors state that Microhyla laterite meets endangered species criteria, a possible incentive for conservation of this unprotected habitat and an example of how surveys of diversity could help shape conservation efforts.
Australia is rich with endemic species, especially marsupials, however this collection highlights the discovery of a new virus from the Australian continent. Warrilow et al. 2014 discovered a new mosquito-borne virus in the Mesoniviridae family, which they named Casuarina virus (CASV), and is the first report of a mesonivirus in Australia. With recent outbreaks of mosquito-borne viral diseases around the world, identifying the diversity and range of viruses is an important area of study. Though this virus does not cause human illness, the discovery of new mosquito-borne viruses increases our knowledge of the mosquito virome and might provide further understanding of viral community/host interactions in the future.
The excitement of publishing the discovery of new species will continue for a long time to come. Some predictions suggest that only 14% of life on Earth and 9% of life in the ocean has been described (4). However, high rates of biodiversity loss underscore the need to dedicate resources toward the discovery of yet to be catalogued new species. The staggering number of undescribed organisms lends an urgency for discovery lest these species disappear without us knowing they ever existed.
- Fang W, St. Leger RJ (2012) Enhanced UV Resistance and Improved Killing of Malaria Mosquitoes by Photolyase Transgenic Entomopathogenic Fungi. PLOS ONE 7(8): e43069. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0043069
- Moodley Y, Bruford MW (2007) Molecular Biogeography: Towards an Integrated Framework for Conserving Pan-African Biodiversity. PLOS ONE 2(5): e454. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0000454
- Jenkins RKB, Tognelli MF, Bowles P, Cox N, Brown JL, et al. (2014) Extinction Risks and the Conservation of Madagascar’s Reptiles. PLOS ONE 9(8): e100173. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0100173
- Mora C, Tittensor DP, Adl S, Simpson AGB, Worm B (2011) How Many Species Are There on Earth and in the Ocean?. PLOS Biology 9(8): e1001127. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.1001127