But there is great reason for hope. The scope of life around us is still revealing itself to scientists around the world. And here’s an astounding fact: no one knows exactly how many types of life are yet undescribed in the scientific literature; estimates range from 86 percent to as high as 99.99 percent.
In 2020 alone, researchers at the California Academy of Sciences described 213 new species in scientific journals: 101 ants, 22 crickets, 15 fish, 11 geckos, 11 flowering plants, 11 sea slugs, eight beetles, eight fossil echinoderms, seven spiders, five snakes, two aphids, two eels, two skinks, one coral, one fossil amphibian, one fossil scallop, one fossil sea lily, one frog, one moss, one sand dollar and one seahorse.
These species weren’t necessarily first spotted last year. Instead, they were officially described in the scientific literature as unique—some after decades of research. 2021 promises to be just as prodigious.
I am inspired by this news. Every new life-form we find is a bit of hope, taking shape in a leaf, feather, fin, fossil or tuft of fur.
Mysterious marmoset in the Amazon
Deforestation in the Amazon Rain Forest is occurring most rapidly along a curve that hugs the southeastern edge of the region. Resource managers and scientists have come to call it the “Arc of Deforestation.” In fact, nearly half of the world’s deforestation is occurring here, concentrated along the southern border of the Amazon Rain Forest in Brazil. Most of the clearing is carried out by large- and middle-sized ranches for the purpose of creating cattle pasture.
Among the trees of this vast region lives a little-studied group of animals called marmosets. While no one knows the total number of Amazon marmoset species that currently exist, we do know that there are at least 16. They belong to the genus Mico and are one of the most diverse groups of monkeys known.
Recently, a team of scientists discovered a new marmoset species in the Brazilian Amazon. Named after Professor Horacio Schneider, a pioneer and major contributor to the research of diversity and evolution of monkeys, Schneider’s marmoset (Mico schneideri), has a lead-colored saddle and rump with cream-silver underparts. There is grey fur on the back of its neck and on top of its head. Its hands are light orange, its feet are orange, and its tail is black.
Scientists say further research is needed to assess the conservation status of M. schneideri and to investigate the southern portion of its geographical distribution. Continuing to uncover exactly how many Amazon marmosets occupy these forests will lend support for conserving this threatened group of monkeys—and stop the deforestation before the entire biome reaches an environmental point of no return.
Puzzling plant in Peru
Almost 50 years ago, in 1973, a scientist name Robin Foster stumbled upon a strange tree in the Amazon Rain Forest. About 20 feet tall, with tiny orange fruits shaped like paper lanterns, it was unlike anything he had ever seen. He collected samples of the plant’s fruits and leaves, but all the scientists he consulted were unable to identify the plant. They couldn’t even declare it a new species because they couldn’t tell what family it belonged to. But in an October 2021 article in the journal Taxon, it was reported that researchers had analyzed the plant’s DNA and finally determined where to place it in the family tree of trees. They gave it a name meaning “mystery of Manu,” after the national park in Peru where it came from.
Foster’s plant had sat in the Chicago Field Museum’s herbarium, a library of dried plant specimens, for years. When a scientific team finally got a grant to study the plant, they attempted to analyze the DNA using the dried specimens. It didn’t work. So, they enlisted the help of a scientist who had spent years monitoring Manu National Park. She found a fresh sample; and when the researchers at the Chicago Field Museum analyzed it in a DNA laboratory, they were shocked by what they found.
The mystery plant’s closest relatives turned out to be in the Picramniaceae family, although it didn’t look anything like them—at least at first glance. With a closer look, however, things fell into place.
The researchers were now able to give the plant a formal scientific name, Aenigmanu alvareziae. The genus name, Aenigmanu, means “mystery of Manu”; while the species name is in honor of Patricia Alvarez-Loayza, who collected the first specimens used for the genetic analysis. (It’s worth noting that while Aenigmanu alvareziae is new to scientists, it has long been used by the indigenous Machiguenga people.) The researchers say that finally getting a scientific classification for Aenigmanu alvareziae could ultimately help protect the Amazon Rain Forest in the face of deforestation and climate change.
The scientists added that plants are understudied in general, but especially the tropical forest plants in the Upper Amazon. For understanding the changes that are taking place in the tropics, for protecting what remains and for restoring areas that have been wiped out, they write, plants are the most important beings to study. Giving them unique names is the best way to organize information about them and call attention to them.
Tantalizing tree in Tanzania
High up in the clouded mountains of Tanzania, researchers have discovered a new species of tree. It grows up to 65-feet tall and has white flowers. It ranges only through a three-square-mile area and has been categorized as endangered. It’s not known what kind of wildlife might rely on this tree, but it is most likely pollinated by a species of beetle.
Researcher Dr. Andy Marshall—from England’s University of York, Department of Environment and Geography—discovered the tree when carrying out a survey of the forests in Tanzania’s Usambara Mountains, seeking to understand the environmental factors that influence the amount of carbon that forests can store.
Unfortunately, the forests of these mountains have been reduced in size by thousands of square miles over the past 100 years. And with such a small population, it is important that this tree does not become isolated from other forests in the region, due to increasing agriculture. Small forests need to be connected to others to ensure seed dispersal and species adaptation to climate change.
The researchers note that forests that have been restored with the help of human intervention rarely achieve the same number of species that would have occurred naturally. This means that conservation efforts—such as working with local villagers to develop new methods for restoring forests, find alternative sources for wood, and reduce invasive vines and wildfires that can kill trees—should begin before any further damage occurs. With local support, thousands of small trees have grown back in areas once lost, suggesting that a similar approach could be used here, where species are at risk of becoming extinct through human activity and climate change.
The Usambara Mountains are a refuge for ancient species from a time when a great forest covered all of tropical Africa. The discovery of this extremely rare tree reaffirms the importance of the region as one of the most important reservoirs of biodiversity in Africa.
Fascinating fossil finds
Although such life-forms are no longer with us, fossil finds affirm that there is so much more vibrancy to this Earth than we ever realized.
In September 2021, the National Science Foundation reported that a group of children on a school, fossil-hunting field trip in Kawhia Harbor in New Zealand discovered the bones of a giant fossilized penguin. Scientists say the animal is between 27.3 million and 34.6 million years old and is from a time when much of the area was underwater. It was declared a new species in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.
Penguins have a fossil record reaching almost as far back as the age of the dinosaurs, with the most ancient to date discovered in Aotearoa, the indigenous Maori name for New Zealand. Fossil penguins from ancient Aotearoa are mostly from Canterbury and Otago, although important discoveries have recently been made in Taranaki and Waikato.
The penguin the schoolchildren found is like the Kairuku giant penguins first described from Otago, but it has much longer legs, a feature which the researchers used to name the penguin waewaeroa (the Maori word for “long legs”). These longer legs would have made the penguin much taller than other Kairuku penguins when it walked on land, perhaps around 4.6 feet tall, and may have influenced how fast it could swim or how deep it could dive.
Recently, another fossil of a new species was found near water, this time in Peru. In a paper published online July 23, 2021, in the Journal of Human Evolution, the animal was dubbed Parvimico materdei, or “tiny monkey from the Mother of God River.”
About 18 million years ago, a monkey weighing little more than a baseball and no bigger than a hamster lived in the Amazon Rain Forest. The finding of this smallest fossil monkey known worldwide by a team of American and Peruvian scientists is based on a single tooth, twice the size of a pinhead. The specimen, uncovered in a riverbank in southeastern Peru, helps bridge a 15-million-year gap in the fossil record for the evolution of New World monkeys.
Monkeys are thought to have arrived in South America from Africa about 40 million years ago, quickly diversifying into the 150-plus New World species we know today, most of which inhabit the Amazon Rain Forest. Yet exactly how that process unfolded is a mystery, in large part because of a gap in the monkey fossil record between 13 and 31 million years ago. The new fossil tooth dates back 17 to 19 million years, which puts it smack-dab in the time and place when we would have expected diversification to have occurred in the New World monkeys.
Paleontologists can tell a lot from monkey teeth, particularly molars. Based on the tooth’s relative size and shape, the researchers think the animal likely dined on energy-rich fruits and insects, and weighed in at less than half a pound. Some of South America’s larger monkeys, such as howlers and muriquis, can grow to 50 times that heft. Only one monkey species alive today, the teacup-sized pygmy marmoset, is smaller than Parvimico materdei—but just barely.
It’s been a tough two years, full of sickness and death with the COVID-19 pandemic on the backdrop of the sixth mass extinction. And, I have no idea what 2022 will look like. But as we try to build a better, new world, it’s good to know that we’ll continue to find fascinating new forms of life; hopeful harbingers of what’s to come.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,