Humans have made their way to the moon, landed rovers on Mars and sent spacecraft to the outer reaches of the solar system. But the Earth remains a little-known planet. That becomes clear when naturalists look for creatures closer to home and find unknown gems. Here are our favorite new species of 2016.
Johnny’s Favorite Crawler
How many kinds of tarantulas exist in the United States? Until evolutionary biologist Chris Hamilton decided to investigate, nobody knew. He and his colleagues spent much of the past decade looking for tarantulas and sorting through contradictory past studies. The team turned up 14 new tarantula species, mostly in the Southwest. Eight of them are miniatures. Some are smaller than a quarter. An all-black species found near California’s Folsom Prison—where Johnny Cash, the Man in Black, recorded a live album—was dubbed Aphonopelma johnnycashi.
Tumbleweeds are synonymous with the American West, but also hail from other continents, such as Asia and Australia. Two of these tumbleweeds interbred at some point to form a new species, Salsola ryanii, which is about 5 feet in height and nearly as wide. After quickly growing and flowering, it dries and then its stem breaks, allowing it to tumble in the wind, spreading seeds as it goes. Usually, such hybrids are sterile, but in this case, the plant underwent an unusual genetic event that led to a duplication of its entire genome. That allowed it to reproduce and also made it incompatible with either of its parents. It has been found at 15 sites throughout California. “It’s extremely rare to catch a new species in the act of appearing and expanding,” says Norm Ellstrand, a professor of genetics at University of California, Riverside, “and very exciting.”
How Many Penises?
When biologist Jean Krejca unearthed an extremely leggy millipede in a remote cave in California’s Sequoia National Park, she knew it was special, so she sent it to the millipede experts Bill Shear and Paul Marek, who determined it was a new species and gave it the name Illacme tobini. With 414 legs, it’s one of Earth’s leggiest creatures. It is closely related to Illacme plenipes, which lives about 150 miles away and has 750 legs—the most of any animal. The millipede also has four gonopods, the millipede equivalents of penises, and boasts 200 poison glands.
Parasite in Purple
While most plants rely on the sun for energy and food, some pursue a strange alternative stratagem: thievery. Japanese scientists have found a bizarre new plant they call Sciaphila yakushimensis (after Yakushima, the lush Japanese island where it was found). This species, like its relatives, makes its way aboveground only when it flowers—in this case with a purple blossom. It gets its sustenance by stealing nutrients from the roots and root-bound fungi of other plants.
Snake in the Sun
The Bahamas are hardly an unexplored place. It came as quite a shock, then, for herpetologist Graham Reynolds when he found a handsome, undescribed silver serpent on a small uninhabited Bahaman island. Reynolds, who works at the University of North Carolina-Asheville, called it the Conception Bank silver boa (Chilabothrus argentum), and it’s already listed as critically endangered: Reynolds and his colleagues found only 33 of them on the island. They worry the creatures will be devoured by cats that apparently live on the island (they’ve seen only footprints) or targeted by collectors for the pet trade.
The Leaf That Wasn’t
When is a leaf not a leaf? When it’s a spider. Max Kuntner, an arachnologist at the Research Center of the Slovenian Academy of Science and Arts, and colleagues discovered the creature on a nighttime walk through a rain forest in southern China. They placed it in the genus Poltys with orb-weaving spiders that live in China and produce distinctive circular webs. It’s the first arachnid known to mimic foliage, a survival strategy that helps it avoid predation by insects such as wasps. Other spiders have been known to masquerade as bits of bark, twigs, flowers and even bird droppings.
A Vegetarian Piranha
Piranhas are famous for their fearsome teeth and ability to quickly devour flesh. But not all creatures in this biological family are so brashly carnivorous. Researchers from Brazil’s Federal University of Pará have discovered a new species of piranha-like fish with chompers specialized for grinding seeds and other vegetable debris that falls into the tributaries of the western Amazon, where it lives. It grows to a length of 18 inches and has reddish coloration, with yellow on its fins and belly, and it is sought after by fishermen for its meat. The biologists named it Myloplus zorroi, after the fictional character Zorro, a hero in Latin America.
Whip spiders, also known as tailless whip scorpions, display more variety than scientists knew. Brazilian researchers uncovered eight new species of these creatures in the Amazon rain forest of northern Brazil. They aren’t true spiders—they lack silk and venom glands—but they do possess fearsome-looking appendages called pedipalps that look like arms with claws and are used to grab prey. These spiny freaks hang out in caves or leaf litter. To tell the species apart, researchers Gustavo Miranda and Alessandro Giupponi counted the hairs on their pedipalps.
These fish don’t need a light—they carry their own, thanks. In August, scientists reported in the journal PLOS One that they had found two new species of deep sea fish with this unusual arrangement. They have light-producing bacteria in a pouch within their gut that makes them appear to glow. They can change the size of this pouch, contracting it to hide the light and expanding it to reveal the light, which then passes through transparent scales on their underside. The scientists dubbed these new species the gray mirrorbelly and black mirrorbelly— Monacoa griseus and Monacoa niger.
Australian biologist Jürgen Otto has spent the past decade cataloguing peacock spiders, the males of which engage in adorably strange jigs to woo females, extending their furry legs and flashy abdomens. He’s discovered dozens of new varieties, and in May, he co-authored a paper in the journal Peckhamia identifying seven more. The spiders range in length from 0.1 to 0.2 inches, and they are often brightly and brilliantly colored.