Enough new species for an annual top 10

Perhaps they’ll hold lessons for our species

By The Mercury

Species may be going extinct and our planet might well be going to hell in a handbasket, but the news isn’t all bad.

For example, if the number of new species discovered in the last year is any indication, the handbasket is far from empty.

If you’re not familiar with the olinguito or Dracaena kaweesakii or Tinkerbella nana, you’ve got plenty of company. So, in fact, do these three species. They are among as many as 18,000 new species in the organic kingdom identified and named in the last year.

Perhaps because thousands of new species are too many for humans to handle at once, an international panel of taxonomists and other experts on the subject has compiled a top 10 list every year since 2008. The three species named above are some of the stars of this year’s class.

The olinguito, which the panel describes as a cross between a slinky cat and a wide-eyed teddy bear, lives quietly in the Andes cloud forests of Ecuador and Colombia. It’s an arboreal carnivore and related to the raccoon, but it rarely gets heavier than 4.5 pounds. It’s the first carnivorous mammal to turn up in the Western Hemisphere in decades.

The Dracaena kaweesakii is a dragon tree. It grows up to 40 feet tall in certain limestone mountains in Thailand. It has soft, sword-shaped leaves and cream-colored flowers with orange filaments. Sounds beautiful.

Tinkerbella nana is a fairyfly. Among the tiniest of all insects, it’s in the parasitoid wasp family. Found in Costa Rica, its life span is believed to measure in days.

Among other species the group has highlighted are the leaf-tailed gecko from the rain forests of Australia’s Melville Range, a sea anemone that lives under a glacier in Antarctica, a tiny skeleton shrimp found in a cave on Catalina Island and even so-called clean-room microbes. Found in places where spacecraft are assembled, this species could have the potential to contaminate other planets that the spacecraft visit.

The purposes of the experts who compile the list in cooperation with the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Foresty’s International Institute for Species Exploration include simply knowing what lives on earth, But their motives go beyond that. “By studying the millions of ways in which organisms have met challenges, we open a great library of possibilities for meeting our own needs more sustainably,” said Dr. Quentin Wheeler, ESF president.

As remarkable as the discovery of thousands of new species a year is, scientists believe they’ve discovered only about 20 percent of the species on this planet; as many as 10 million more remain undiscovered.

We wish these scientists well. Given that scientists also believe that as many as 20,000 species go extinct every year, there is little time to waste.

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