A cute carnivorous mammal (the first discovered in the western hemisphere in 35 years), a 12-metre-tall tree that has somehow been hiding in plain sight and a microbe that can live even in clean rooms and could be a hazard during space travel, are among the top 10 species discovered last year by the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry's (ESF) International Institute for Species Exploration (IISE).
Also on the list are a gecko that fades into the background, a tiny, translucent snail from one of earth's deepest cave systems, and a teeny fringed fairyfly named Tinkerbell.
The olinguito, resembling a cross between a slinky cat and a wide-eyed teddy bear, lives secretively in cloud forests of the Andes mountains in Colombia and Ecuador. It is an arboreal carnivore that belongs to the family Procyonidae, which includes the raccoon. The olinguito is smaller, though, typically about two kilograms (approximately 4.5 pounds). It is the first new carnivorous mammal described in the Western Hemisphere in 35 years. Its apparent dependence on cloud forest habitat means deforestation is a threat.
Mark Gurney / CC BY 3.0
Tinkerbell Fairyfly: Tinkerbella nana. The tiny size and delicately fringed wings of the parasitoid wasp family Mymaridae led to their common name: fairyflies. Tinkerbella nana, named after Peter Pan's fairy sidekick, measures just 250 micrometres (0.00984 inches) and is among the smallest insects. It is the latest addition to the 1,400 or so known species of the family. The new species was collected by sweeping vegetation in secondary growth forest at LaSelva Biological Station in Costa Rica. Although its host is not yet known, like other fairyflies it presumably has a life span of not more than a few days and attacks the eggs of other insects.
Kaweesak's Dragon Tree: Dracaena kaweesakii. Sounding like something out of Game of Thrones and standing 12 metres (nearly 40 feet) tall, it's hard to believe the dragon tree went unnoticed this long. Beautiful, soft, sword-shaped leaves with white edges and cream-coloured flowers with bright orange filaments are the hallmarks of this impressive plant. The dragon tree is found in the limestone mountains of the Loei and Lop Buri Provinces in Thailand and may also be found in nearby Burma. Valued as a horticultural plant, its small number (perhaps 2,500), and the fact that it grows on limestone that is extracted for the manufacture of concrete, has earned this species a preliminary conservation status of endangered.
Warakorn Kasempankul/Parinya Siriponama/Paul Wilkin
Skeleton Shrimp: Liropus minusculus. This tiny shrimp, the smallest in the genus, was identified from among specimens originally collected from a cave on that island of Santa Catalina, off the coast of Southern California. Part of a marine family known as skeleton shrimp, only distantly related to the ones some humans love to dip in cocktail sauce, this crustacean is the first of its genus to be reported in the northeastern Pacific. The new species has an eerie, translucent appearance that makes it resemble a bony structure. The male's body measures just 3.3 millimetres (about an eighth of an inch); the female is even smaller at 2.1mm (less than a tenth of an inch).
SINC (Servicio de Informacion y Noticias Cientificas) and J.M. Guerra-García
Domed Land Snail: Zospeum tholussum lives in complete darkness some 900-plus metres (nearly 3,000 feet) below the surface in the Lukina Jama-Trojama caves of western Croatia. This land snail lacks eyes as they're not necessary in the total darkness of the caves, and it has no shell pigmentation giving it a ghost-like appearance. Only one living specimen was collected in a large cavern among rocks and sand with a small stream of running water nearby, however many shells were also found in the area. Even by snail standards, Zospeum tholossum moves slowly, creeping only a few millimetres or centimetres a week. Researchers suspect these small snails, measuring only 2 millimetres in length (0.08 inch), travel in water currents or hitchhike on other cave animals, such as bats or crickets, to travel longer distances.
Andrill Anemone: Edwardsiella andrillae. A species of sea anemone, living under a glacier on the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica, raises questions by its very existence. It is not clear how the species withstands the harsh conditions in its habitat. It is the first species of sea anemone reported to live in ice. It was discovered when the Antarctic Geological Drilling Program (Andrill) sent a remotely operated submersible vehicle into holes that had been drilled into the ice. This revealed the presence of small creatures, less than 2.5 centimeters long (one inch) with most of their pale yellow bodies burrowed into the ice shelf and their roughly two dozen tentacles dangling into the frigid water below.
Leaf-tailed Gecko: Saltuarius eximius. It's not easy to spot this gecko, which has an extremely wide tail that is employed as part of its camouflage. With longer limbs, a more slender body and larger eyes than other Saltuarius species, this one has a mottled colouration that allows it to blend in with its surroundings. Native to rain forests and rocky habitats, this gecko is a bit of a night owl. It is found on the vertical surfaces of rocks and trees as it waits for prey. Surveys of similar habitat near the area where this species was found did not reveal additional populations, so this may be a rare species. The gecko was discovered on rocky terrain in isolated rain forests of the Melville Range of eastern Australia.
Orange Penicillium: Penicillium vanoranjei. Distinguished by the bright orange colour it displays when produced in colonies, this fungus was named as a tribute to the Dutch royal family, specifically His Royal Highness the Prince of Orange. It was reported in a journal published by the National Herbarium of the Netherlands. The newcomer was isolated from soil in Tunisia. This species also produces a sheet-like extra-cellular matrix that may function as protection from drought.
Courtesy of Cobus M. Visagie
Clean Room Microbes: Tersicoccus phoenicis. There are some things we don't want to send into space and the newly discovered clean room microbes are among them. Found in rooms where spacecraft are assembled, this microbial species could potentially contaminate other planets that the spacecraft visit. Tersicoccus phoenicis was independently collected from the floors of two separate clean rooms around 2,500 miles apart, one in Florida and one in French Guiana. While frequent sterilisation reduces the microbes found in clean rooms, some resistant species persist that can tolerate extreme dryness; wide ranges of pH, temperature and salt concentration; and exposure to UV light or hydrogen peroxide.
Images provided by Leibniz-Institute DSMZ and Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology
Amoeboid Protist: Spiculosiphon oceana. This one-celled organism is four to five centimetres high (1.5 to two inches), making it a giant in the world of single-celled creatures. This foram (part of a distinct group among the many amoeboids) from the Mediterranean Sea gathers pieces of silica spicules, which are actually sponge fragments, from its surroundings and uses them like so many Lego blocks to construct a shell. It ends up looking much like a carnivorous sponge as well as feeding like one, extending pseudopods (a protist's version of arms) outside the shell to feed on invertebrates that have become trapped in the spiny structures. This species was discovered in underwater caves 30 miles off the southeast coast of Spain. Interestingly, they are the same caves where carnivorous sponges were first discovered.
Courtesy of Manuel Maldonado