Seventy new plant and animal species discovered during 2021

The new species include 14 beetles, 12 sea slugs, nine ants, seven fish, six scorpions and five flowering plants.

Seventy new plant and animal species discovered during 2021 iStock

Seventy new species of life were discovered over the last 12 months.

From the lowland forests of Madagascar to Easter Island’s coral reefs, the new flora and fauna grow Earth’s tree of life.

In 2021, researchers at the California Academy of Sciences in the US added 70 new plant and animal species to the list of life, enriching the understanding of Earth’s complex web of life.

The new species include 14 beetles, 12 sea slugs, nine ants, seven fish, six scorpions, five sea stars, five flowering plants, four sharks, three spiders, two sea pens, one moss, one pygmy pipehorse, and one caecilian.

More than a dozen Academy scientists – along with several dozen international collaborators – described the new species discoveries.

Proving that our vast and dynamic planet still contains unexplored places with never-before recorded plants and animals, the scientists made their finds over five continents and three oceans.

Researchers sifted through forest floors, ventured into vast deserts, and dived to extreme ocean depths.

Their results help advance the Academy’s mission to regenerate the natural world through science, learning, and collaboration.

Doctor Shannon Bennett, academy virologist and chief of science, said: “Biodiversity is critical for the health of our planet, and is being lost at a rate where sustainability practices are no longer enough.

“As stewards of our natural world, we need to play an active role in regenerating ecosystems.

“Our relationship to nature improves with each new species, deepening our understanding of how our planet works and can best respond to an uncertain future.

“As we continue to battle a changing climate and a global pandemic, there has never been a more crucial time to protect the variety of life on Earth.”

Among the new discovery was Pachyrhynchus obumanuvu, a brightly coloured Easter egg weevil from the forested mountaintops of the Philippines.

At 3000ft above sea level, the weevils live in the canopy of the moist, moss-covered cloud forest. Unlike most weevils, which tend to be a single colour, P. obumanuvu boasts complex patterns of iridescent yellows and greens. Its colouration mimics the traditional garments of its namesake, the Indigenous Obu Manuvu tribe.

Collaborating researcher Dr Analyn Cabras had extra motivation in naming the species.

Dr Cabras said: “We are in a race against time under the constant threat of forest degradation.

“Many insects may go extinct before they are even discovered.”

P. obumanuvu was found in a small patch of primary forest – one of few remaining in the region due to centuries of farming and overlogging.

Dr Cabras noted the power of a name to instill a sense of pride and stewardship for a species within a community.

She highlights the importance of continued species identification, particularly in regions faced with rapid exploitation of natural resources.

She added: “How can we teach conservation and wildlife regeneration if we can’t put a name to a face?”

Cylix tupareomanaia, a new species of pygmy pipehorse and close cousin to seahorses, was the first new genus of pipehorse to be reported in New Zealand since 1921.

Academy Research Associate Dr Graham Short said: “This discovery underscores how little we know about the reefs of New Zealand we’ve been exploring for centuries.

“If you dive a little deeper, I expect we’ll identify several more new species of fish.”

Dr Short’s findings have uncovered other undescribed species within the Cylix genus from South Africa to the Seychelles.

Ichthyology research associate Dr David Ebert described two blue-spotted guitarfish from Madagascar (Acroteriobatus andysabini) and Socotra (Acroteriobatus stehmanni).

These are coastal rays with elongated bodies and flattened heads that resemble guitars.

Because of their close proximity to humans and ability to be easily fished, these shark-like rays are among the most endangered of all cartilaginous fish.

Dr Ebert’s conclusion that there are in fact two distinct species has brought conservation to the forefront, helping to enable Madagascar’s first national plan of action to protect sharks and rays.

Collaborating with local fisheries to incorporate species identification in their practice, Dr Ebert is hopeful for harmony between guitarfish and the neighbouring coastal communities they sustain.

He said: “How can we manage species protection in a region where food security is a prevalent issue?

“It’s not simply a matter of protecting these animals; it’s about coming up with long-term solutions for both rays and human populations.”

Over the past year, Invertebrate Zoology Research Associate Dr Christopher Mah described five new-to-science echinoderms – a group of marine animals that includes sea stars, sea urchins, sea cucumbers, and more – from Easter Island and New Caledonia.

After careful examination of images from a remotely-operated vehicle and sea star specimens, Dr Mah described the Indo-Pacific sea star Uokeaster ahi.

Setting the reef ablaze with its bright orange colour, U. ahi is aptly named for its fiery hue – ahi, meaning ‘fire’ in the Rapa Nui language.

‘Uokeaster’ is derived from the mythological sea deity Uoke, who, according to legend, submerged the once-continental Rapa Nui beneath the sea, leaving only its tallest mountain peaks exposed. U. ahi resides in the reefs just beneath the surface.

Dr Mah explained that sea stars are important contributors to healthy coral reefs. Remove them, and the ecosystem falls out of balance.

He added: “You never know what benefit will come of studying the unknown, whether that’s a tangible benefit like an anti-cancer drug or an ecological benefit in protecting coral reefs.”

The findings were published in the journal Kew Bulletin.

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