Most biodiversity news is bad news. Climate change, development and resource extraction threaten plants and animals around the world. But scientists are still discovering species, too. Finding and describing species new to science isn’t just something Charles Darwin did. Scientists at Bay Area institutions are discovering plants and animals all over the world, including some right here in California.
“You would think, of course, we’ve done our homework and we’ve already charted our own biosphere, our own map of life on the planet,” said Brian Fisher, an entomologist at the California Academy of Sciences. While there’s a lot of attention focused on the search for life on other planets, he said, there’s still a lot still to discover here.
Last year, Fisher published descriptions of 38 new species of ants in Madagascar. Over the course of his career, he’s described 256 ant species.
“It’s not just discovering something esoteric like an ant,” he said. “It’s actually really trying to understand how ecosystems work, how they’re put together and really, it’s about our long-term sustainability. How are we, as humans, going to maintain clean water, clean environments and this relationship with biodiversity?”
These new-to-science species aren’t all in far-away Madagascar. In 2012, David Wake, a curator of herpetology at Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at UC Berkeley, named two new species of salamanders that live in California.
“It’s a thrill. You never get over it,” he said, of finding a new species. “You’d think we’ve been everywhere in California, but it’s not true.”
Other California discoveries in 2013 include four species of legless lizard, described by Theodore Papenfuss, also of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. Berkeley scientists also turned up two new California fungi, one of them on the Berkeley campus. And they found two new flowering plants, one in Contra Costa County, the other in Southern California.
The science of taxonomy focuses on naming and categorizing new species, but scientists also work to make sure the the existing family trees are arranged correctly. “We sometimes discover that species described in the past have been wrongly classified when they actually represent an entire group of organisms new to science,” explained Carole Hickman, a professor in UC Berkeley’s Department of Integrative Biology.
Last year, she described a new family of marine gastropods.
And then there’s documenting extinct species. CalAcademy scientists described two extinct sand dollars. And Jeffrey Benca, a grad student at University of California’s Museum of Paleontology, is in the process of publishing a paper about an extinct plant from the Devonian period. Studying that plant, which is related to current-day club mosses, and its relatives “may lead to a better understanding of where the continents were positioned when our distant ancestors, early tetrapods — lobe-finned fishes and amphibians — invaded land,” he said.
The parade of species discovered by scientists at UC Berkeley and the California Academy of Sciences in 2013 also includes, among many others, a caecilian in the Iwokrama Forest in central Guyana (a caecilian is a snake-shaped amphibian), a dwarf gecko from Mt. Namuli in Mozambique, barnacles in the Gulf of Guinea, corals and sea fans in the Pacific, and an Ethiopian mite.
Welcome to the world of science, you endless forms.