Every year Arizona State University’s International Institute for Species Exploration puts out a list of the top ten newly described or discovered species. Professor Quentin Wheeler describes the wackiest and weirdest of the bunch to host Bruce Gellerman.
GELLERMAN: The International Institute for Species Exploration has just announced its annual top ten list of newly described or discovered species. The list is released on May 23, coinciding with the anniversary of the birth of Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist responsible for the modern system of naming and classifying plants and animals. Linnaeus would be 315 years old and we’re certain if he could, he would sit up and take notice of this year's winning species. They're a mighty weird bunch. Quentin Wheeler is an entomologist at Arizona State University and directs the Species Exploration Institute. Welcome to Living on Earth.
WHEELER: Glad to be here.
GELLERMAN: I think Carl Linnaeus would have a lot of fun with these new finds.
WHEELER: I'm sure that he would, although I think he'd be surprised at just how fast new species are continuing to show up.
GELLERMAN: How many plants and animals are discovered each year?
WHEELER: Well, at present, the average is about 18,000 new plant and animal species each and every year.
GELLERMAN: Wow, that's a lot of new species! I'm kind of amazed myself.
WHEELER: Well, not as many as I'd like to see. During Linnaeus' lifetime he knew about 10,000 species and thought that he probably knew most of them at that point. But our best estimate is that there are perhaps 12 million living species, of which we've described about 2 million since 1758, so we have a long way to go, and if we keep going at the pace of 18,000 a year, it'll take 500 years to get the job done.
GELLERMAN: So there's still stuff to be discovered?
WHEELER: The vast majority. The golden age of species discovery is just beginning.
GELLERMAN: Well, let's go to your new list, the top ten newly described or discovered species. The Sneezing Monkey?
WHEELER: (laughing) Yes, and that was some wisdom passed on to a team that were doing a survey of the status of gibbons, and were told by locals, who know the flora and fauna fairly well, that when it rains, there was a monkey known to them but unknown to science. The water gets into its nasal cavity and causes it to sneeze.
GELLERMAN: So it's got to rain for these monkeys to sneeze.
WHEELER: That's right. And as I understand it, when it's raining they'll tuck their head down sort of between their knees and try to keep their face out of the rain.
GELLERMAN: I guess you guys had a lot of fun naming these. The one I like is Spongiforma squarepantsii...So, SpongeBob SquarePants!
WHEELER: I agree; that was my favorite name among the top ten this year. It's actually a fungus. It belongs to the family of Boli fungi that have pores instead of gills under the caps of the mushrooms. But this one looks very much like a sponge, both macroscopically and microscopically.
GELLERMAN: Who names these things?
WHEELER: There are a mixture of professional and serious amateurs around the world who are engaged in discovery and description. But as long as you deposit a specimen in a public museum and conform to a few rules of establishing the name, it's really not that difficult. The difficult part is learning all the species in the group you're studying that have been discovered in the last 250 years, because unless you know those, you can't be certain you're looking at a new one.
GELLERMAN: Well, I like one on your list - it's called Tomoya oboya!
WHEELER: (laughing) Yes, that's an absolutely gorgeous box jelly and unfortunately sort of as toxic and venomous as it is beautiful.
GELLERMAN: So when you get stung you exclaim...
WHEELER: Oboya! (laughs) Among other things that I can't say on the radio!
GELLERMAN: I like this one: the devil's worm, ooh, that sounds weird.
WHEELER: If I had a favorite this year, and it's impossible to pick favorites, but that would probably be the one. And not because it's photogenic—it’s got a face only a mother nematode could love. But it showed up almost a mile deep in a mine in South Africa and the water out of the bore hole indicated that it had not been in contact with atmospheric conditions for 4,000, maybe as much as 6,000 years. So this is a very isolated habitat, almost a mile beneath the surface, and here's this multi-cellular organism living down there.
GELLERMAN: How did anyone know to look for this thing?
WHEELER: Well, I'm not sure that they were, but it showed up in the sample as they were extracting water from the borehole.
GELLERMAN: Professor Wheeler, did you ever discover a new species?
WHEELER: I have. I have actually never counted them, but it's over one hundred.
GELLERMAN: Any named after you?
WHEELER: There are, actually. As far as I know, there are three beetles.
GELLERMAN: What's the proper name, then?
WHEELER: Wheeleri. If it's named after a male, as it is in my case, then it ends in an "i," and if it were a woman it would end in "ae." And then we named a new species after President Bush called Agathidium bushi.
GELLERMAN: So was it a new bush that was discovered?
WHEELER: No, no, it was a beetle, one of my beetles. The best part was President Bush called me, which was fantastic. As a scientist, you don't ever expect to get a call from the Oval Office.
GELLERMAN: Is there an Obami?
WHEELER: There is a lichen that was named after Obama.
GELLERMAN: A lowly lichen for the most powerful man on earth.
GELLERMAN: Well, Professor Wheeler, thank you so very much.
WHEELER: Oh, it's been a delight. Thank you.
GELLERMAN: That's Quentin Wheeler. He's an entomologist at Arizona State University and Director of the International Institute for Species Exploration.
Well, sometimes you find new species and sometimes new species find you. Joining me in the studio is Living on Earth's producer Jessica Ilyse Kurn and Jessica, I understand you had a close encounter with a new kind of cactus.
KURN: That's right. I was on a research trip in college in Mexico and I was doing my thing and all of a sudden I lost my footing and I slipped down this mountain and I’m rolling down the mountain - little rocks everywhere. It was painful. And instinctively I put my hands out in front of me and luckily, instead of landing on my face, I landed on my hands with all my impact into a cactus.
GELLERMAN: Ouch! That hurts!
KURN: It hurt. So I had an emergency whistle with me around my neck and I blew it because I was in shock and couldn't actually yell. My classmates came down to get me and when they pulled me out of the cactus, the whole entire cactus came with me - that's how embedded I was into this cactus.
And I was in a ton of pain. The cactus was poisonous and the spines were barbed so when you pulled them out part of your skin would come along with it. But my professor came up to me and said, "You know, it's a horrible story, I know you're in pain, but here's the clincher: this cactus, I've seen tons of cactus in my day and I've never seen this one." So he took a little sample of it and sent it to the Arizona State University and he was hoping it would be discovered as a new species. And if so, they would call it…Opuntia jessicana.
GELLERMAN: Well, we call her Jessica Ilyse Kurn. Thank you Jessica.
KURN: Thanks, Bruce.
GELLERMAN: And if you've ever found something new under the sun, we'd like to know about it. You'll discover a link for your comments, photos of a bruised Jessica Ilyse Kurn, and the top ten new species at our website LOE dot org.
Living on Earth wants to hear from you!
P.O. Box 990007
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.
Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.
Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion
The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.
Energy Foundation: Serving the public interest by helping to build a strong, clean energy economy.
Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary hummingbird photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.