It may sound strange to say, but we hardly know the life-forms with which we share our planet. Consider sharks. They’re pretty prominent and have captured the public's imagination. We probably know a lot about most of them, right?
Not so. A full one-fifth of the described shark species have been discovered in the past decade, and most of the details of their behavior remain unknown. And take dragonflies. A single study this year described 60 new species of dragonflies, many of which are brightly colored and look unique. How’d we miss them?
With that in mind, let’s celebrate the best species that were discovered and/or scientifically described for the first time this year (most of which were previously reported on in Newsweek).
1. The world’s tiniest snail (twice over)
In September, we reported that scientists had discovered the world’s smallest snail, known as Angustopila dominikae, measuring 0.88 millimeters (about 0.03 inches) in diameter and found in China.
But then in November, another team discovered an even smaller snail in Borneo, measuring 0.5 to 0.6 millimeters (0.02 inches) in width. That’s the approximate thickness of five human hairs placed next to one another. The scientists named it Acmella nana—nanus being Latin for dwarf). In the same study, the researchers also found a strange, curlicue-shaped shell known as Ditropopsis davisoni—besides describing 47 other new species of land snails, most quite tiny.
2. The hog-nosed rat
Until one day in 2013, modern science been unaware of the hog-nosed rat (Hyorhinomys stuempkei) a large-eared rodent that lives on the Indonesian isle of Sulawesi. But then one day, it was discovered twice, by two different researchers setting out in opposite directions from base camp, and both happened upon the odd-looking new rats in their respective traps.
The animal, described in a study published in October in the Journal of Mammalogy, has big ears that are one-fifth the length of its body, as well as a large, flat, pink nose with forward-facing nostrils. It also has very long, forward-facing lower teeth and is a carnivore that feeds on various smaller animals.
3. Francis’ woolly horseshoe bat
In 1983, researcher Charles Francis collected a bat in northeastern Borneo that was brought to London’s Natural History Museum. There, it sat in a pickle jar full of alcohol for three decades.
Within the past two years, scientists happened upon it and examined the specimen. After careful work, they determined it represented a new species that hadn’t been described before, and they dubbed it Francis’ woolly horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus francisi), after its discoverer. The bat is further described in a study published in the journal Acta Chiropterologica.
Like other horseshoe bats, this newfound animal has a large structure on its face that is shaped somewhat like a (surprise!) horseshoe. The bat uses the structure to collect and focus sound. Like other bats, Francis’ bats echolocate, bouncing sound beams off of objects to find their way around.
4. Crazy new firefly
It’s not every day that a novice discovers a new firefly. But that’s exactly what happened recently to Joshua Oliva, a 24-year-old undergraduate student at the University of California, Riverside. Oliva found the firefly in May, and it was quickly identified as a new species by Doug Yanega, a senior scientist at the Entomology Research Museum. The new firefly is half a centimeter long, black and orange in color and luminescent on the very tip of its tail. It’s currently undergoing a more thorough scientific description, which is why it doesn’t yet have an official name.
5. Dozens of African dragonflies
As previously mentioned, a study published in December in the journal Odonatologica described 60 new types of dragonfly, increasing the total known number of species to 760—with just one publication, the dragonflies we knew about increased nearly 10 percent. Many of the new species have striking colors and unique names, which include the Tanganyika sprite (“only inhabiting the eponymous lake’s wave-battered shores”); the robust sparklewing, or Umma gumma (whose “name refers to the classic 1969 Pink Floyd album Ummagumma”); and the flame-tipped jewel (which gleams like a ebony-and-gold gem and lives in Uganda’s Semliki National Park).
6. Toothed frogs
Scientists described four new species of toothed frogs found in the forests of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. These creatures look similar to each other physically but have significant genetic differences. They all boast small tooth-like tusks from their lower jaws and are about 2.5 inches long.
7. L.A. pill bug
In a seaside park in Los Angeles, a class of college students from Loyola Marymount University and their professor found an odd-looking aquatic pill bug, often referred to as a roly poly. It turned out to be a new species of pill bug, which they named Exosphaeroma pentcheffi. It is recognizable thanks to a raised, peg-like protrusion on its back and has a unique tail-like uropod (part of the tail fan), which it uses to swim.
8. Shape-shifting frog
This species, found in Ecuador, can change the texture of its skin in a matter of minutes. The animal, found in a park called Reserva Las Gralarias in north-central Ecuador's Andean cloud forest, alters its skin to resemble its background. This allows it to blend in and hide from predators. Their epidermis can take on the texture of a smooth wood, fuzzy moss and spiky sticks. When it was first discovered by wife and husband researcher Katherine and Tim Krynak from Case Western Reserve University, the frog’s skin boasted little spines. But when Katherine Krynak placed it in a white cup, it changed its texture to a smooth, light-colored texture.
9. A cute anglerfish
Anglerfish are bizarre creatures, which have special appendages extending from their heads that are used to lure prey. Now, researchers from Nova Southeastern University have discovered a new one (dubbed Lasiognathus regan), which has a particularly funky, fishing pole–like barbel on its noggin that also produces light. They found three specimens of the fish in the northern Gulf of Mexico at depths between 3,200 and 4,900 feet.
10. South American dwarf dragons
Three new species of “ dwarf dragons,” also known as wood lizards, have been found in the Andean cloud forests of Ecuador and Peru. Unfortunately, the species don’t breathe fire, but they are cute and resemble miniature versions of the mythical beasts. Researchers named the new creatures the Alto Tambo wood lizard (Enyalioides altotambo), rough-scaled wood lizard (E. anisolepis), and Rothschild's wood lizard (E. sophiarothschildae). That brings the total number of species to 15, nearly twice the number of known species in 2006.
11. The ninja lanternshark
Anything with ninja in its name is bound to be awesome. The ninja lanternshark, with the scientific named Etmopterus benchley, is all black in color—but also glows in the dark. It lives in the deep waters off the continental shelf of Central America, in the Pacific.
12. Tortoise, hiding in plain sight
Until this fall, it was thought that the two varieties of giant tortoise on Santa Cruz, one of the Galápagos Islands, were just variations of the same species. But a genetic analysis published in October reveals that the two are actually separate species. The new animal is named Chelonoidis donfaustoi, the Cerro Fatal giant tortoise.
13. Peacock spider duo; skeletorus and sparklemuffin
Peacock spiders are named for their bright colors and known for their intricate courtship dances. Madeline Girard, a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, found two new species of these critters in Australia, and named them skeletorus (Maratus sceletus) and sparklemuffin (Maratus jactatus).
14. Ruby seadragon
Seadragons are similar to seahorses but covered in strange appendages that help them blend into their backgrounds. Science was already aware of two species, the orange-colored leafy seadragons and yellow-and-purple common seadragons. Recent work by scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego has uncovered a third species, a bright-red critter known as the ruby seadragon (Phyllopteryx dewysea).
15. Waspy evolution in action
Speciation, the process in which animals develop into new species, is difficult to observe, as it’s such a slow process. But a study this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows how changes in a fruit fly—which switched from eating the fruit of hawthorn trees to apples—created a cascade of change in the wasp that parasitizes it, leading to the development of three new species over the course of the past 160 years.
16. Dracula ants
Brian Fisher, curator of entomology at the California Academy of Sciences, discovered six new species of dracula ants in Madagascar and the Seychelles Islands off East Africa. These creatures got their name because they drink the hemolymph—the arthropod version of “blood”—of their young.
17. Torpedo ray
Researchers found a new species of torpedo ray named Tetronarce cowleyi this year in the southeastern Atlantic Ocean. Like other torpedo rays, it can produce small jolts of electricity to stun prey. The animal has a creamy white underside that differentiates it from its close relatives.
18. Catshark city
Say hello to yet another sea creature. David Ebert of the Pacific Shark Research Center and a colleague discovered this new species, named the dusky snout catshark (Bythaelurus naylori), in the southwestern Indian Ocean. It grows to a length of 1.5 feet and lives at depths of 300 feet to a mile below the surface.
19. Goblin spiders galore
Scientists have discovered 10 new species of goblin spiders in the leaf litter of forests in Madagascar. These animals are microscopic and move freely through detritus, eating small insects. Charles Griswold, an entomologist at the California Academy of Sciences, explained in a statement that the animals use their bodies to “bulldoze their way through the substrate, parting leaves and soil as easily as a fish moves through water.” He added, “In that way, they are more like beetles and cockroaches than spiders.”
20. A butterfly fit for a legend
Sir David Attenborough, who is best known for writing and presenting the BBC Life series and other nature programs, now has a species named after him. Scientists found this striking butterfly in the upper Amazon basin and named it Attenborough’s black-eyed satyr (Euptychia attenboroughi). The insect has eight bright eyespots that are likely useful for scaring away prey.
21. Musical spiders
And while we’re on the topic of creatures named after prominent people, here’s a little spider that produces mating songs by rubbing parts of its body together. Researcher Lina Almeida named the animal Emmenomma joshuabelli after famed violinist Joshua Bell.