Ever Tangled With a Bloodsucker? You'll Welcome Their New Job

new species

Story at-a-glance -

  • California Academy of Sciences researchers discovered 103 new species in 2015
  • The new discoveries include blood-sucking Dracula ants, electric torpedo rays, goblin spiders and more
  • It’s estimated that less than 10 percent of species on the planet have been discovered so far

By Dr. Becker

California Academy of Sciences researchers discovered more than 100 new species in 2015, an impressive feat (and that’s only half of what they discovered in 2014).

More than a dozen scientists traveled to remote corners of the Earth to look for new organisms, which is becoming increasingly urgent as species worldwide continue to decline.

Scientists are engaged in a race of sorts to identify new species before they become extinct; if new species can be identified, it can sometimes help conservationists to develop a plan to protect the species from further decline.

The process of discovering new species takes time, however. After a discovery is made, the specimen must be collected, genetically tested, described and published in a scientific journal. The work, though arduous, will prove invaluable for future generations.  

Meg Lowman, Ph.D., California Academy of Sciences chief of Science and Sustainability, told SF Gate:1

“Every time we make a new species discovery, it may be a key to a future medicine, the glue that holds together an ecosystem or an important new predator …

Half of the time we don’t know these things, but that’s the purpose: to be this incredible Noah’s Ark of biodiversity for the researchers of tomorrow.”

103 New Plant and Animal Species Discovered in 2015

The Academy reported a laundry list of new species totaling 103 in all. Even as new species continue to be found at a relatively steady pace, it’s thought that 90 percent of species remain a mystery. According to Lowman:2

“Biodiversity scientists estimate that we have discovered less than 10% of the species on our planet …

Academy scientists tirelessly explore the unexplored regions of Earth — not only to discover new species, but also to uncover the importance of these species to the health of our natural systems.

Our findings help inform conservation decisions meant to sustain the future of life for our children and grandchildren. Even in our own backyards new discoveries abound.”

New species discovered in 2015 include:

Two frogs 23 ants Three beetles
Eight wasps 11 spiders 26 fishes
Nine sea slugs Two corals Nine plants
One water bear Eight viruses  

Blood-Sucking Dracula Ants, Torpedo Rays and Goblin Spiders

Nature sure is amazing in its diversity. Some of the most unique discoveries shared by the scientists include:

Blood-Sucking Dracula Ants

These ants have evaded discovery because they’re tiny “barely-visible flecks” that are as thin as two sheets of paper. Plus, they like to stay underground or under leaves on the rainforest floor.

They’re name Dracula for a surprisingly beneficial reason. According to Brian Fisher, Ph.D., academy curator of Entomology:3

“They are known to wound the young of their colonies before drinking their blood — called ‘hemolymph’ in insects. It’s a bizarre but fascinating means of distributing nutrients throughout the colony.”

Electric Torpedo Ray

A new species of electric torpedo ray was discovered in the southeastern Atlantic. They live at depths of 500 feet, where they paralyze prey with an electric discharge released from an organ on their heads.

The electric shot measures at 45 volts, which is strong enough to knock down an adult human.

Goblin Spiders

Ten new species of these microscopic spiders were discovered in Madagascar. Named for their aversion to light, these spiders thrive in the leaves and soil of the forest floor. According to their discoverer arachnologist Charles Griswold, Ph.D., Emeritus Curator:4

“Small-but-mighty goblin spiders are extremely unusual … Unlike most spiders that spin webs above the ground and hunt above the leaves, these goblins exist in darkness.

They use their tough armor to bulldoze their way through the substrate, parting leaves and soil as easily as a fish moves through water. In that way, they are more like beetles and cockroaches than spiders.”

Sea Slugs

Multiple new species of sea slugs (nudibranchs) were discovered from the waters of the Philippines and South Africa. Sea slugs are valued for biomedical research due to chemical properties that may be used in drug development.

Terry Gosliner, Ph.D., nudibranch expert, shared his excitement for the sea slug discoveries she and her team made in the Philippine’s Verde Island Passage:5

“This remarkable stretch of coral rubble was carpeted in colorful nudibranchs — we discovered more than 40 new species … It was like an underwater Easter egg hunt. It was one of the most exciting scientific dives of my 50-year career.”

Researchers Analyze Leeches to Discover New Species

Because new species discovery can be such a lengthy and tedious process, some researchers have turned to leeches to make the process more efficient.

Leeches feed on the blood of mammals, inadvertently collecting DNA samples along the way. By analyzing the DNA in leeches, scientists can easily gather information about the animals they feed upon, gathering a “surprisingly comprehensive snapshot of the jungle’s fauna,” The Atlantic reported.6

DNA sequencing has proven to be accurate and “many times quicker” than traditional methods. In a study published in Ecology Letters, experts took more than 2,500 hours to identify 55,000 specimens. Using DNA sequencers, the same biodiversity information was revealed in a fraction of the time.7

DNA data derived from leeches and insects like mosquitoes, ticks, carrion beetles are already being used to monitor species in protected areas of China and Canada. Simply speaking, by collecting leeches and blood-sucking insects, the DNA sequenced from them can reveal whether the same species are present month after month.

The technology is advancing rapidly such that researchers may soon be able to collect leeches and insects and analyze their collected DNA right in the field. The time and cost savings from such analyses means that new species can be discovered and, if necessary, protected faster before they potentially disappear.

No matter what method is used, these and the California Academy of Sciences researchers share a common goal to “explore, explain, and sustain life on Earth.”8

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