Occasionally a story will hit the news citing fantastic species of animals or plants discovered by scientists on expeditions to faraway places like the heart of Borneo, Amazon rainforests, deep trenches of tropical oceans, or the cliffs of Mongolia’s Gobi Desert.
These appeal to our sense of adventure: What unknown species lurk out there, awaiting discovery? Just days ago, a 5-foot-wide, new species of jellyfish washed ashore in Tasmania. While such stories inspire and excite, they are not necessarily typical of how new species are discovered.
You might be surprised to learn that there are undiscovered, “new” species everywhere … even right here in North Carolina.
Systematics is a subdiscipline of biology that includes the description and classification of organisms (taxonomy) and the study of how organisms evolved and diversified through time (phylogenetics). There are plenty of organisms, living and extinct, yet to be formally described by researchers.
We call them “new species” … but really they should be termed “species new to science,” since these are organisms that have been around for hundreds of thousands of years, or longer, but have not yet been “discovered” by humans. How many living species does Earth have? Nobody knows, and estimates vary widely.
Approximately 2 million animal and plant species are currently known, and it is not unreasonable to expect that 10 million or more await discovery … and that doesn’t include microbes.
New species are sometimes discovered when a researcher is conducting fieldwork out in the world. Commonly, though, new species are discovered when researchers study specimens in existing museum collections, which are treasure troves of biodiversity that preserving snapshots of Earth’s biodiversity through time.
The N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, for example, holds more than 3 million specimens that document the modern and ancient natural worlds of North Carolina and beyond.
Biodiversity discovery is a common theme in research being done here. Museum scientists were involved in several recent and scientifically exciting discoveries, including: a new mega-predator dinosaur from Utah; a new carnivore mammal species from Ecuador; a new family of Late Eocene cephalopods (squid-like animals) from Mississippi; a Late Triassic mussel species from North Carolina; a new frog species from Laos; two new mite species from Ethiopia; and 11 new insect species from the tropical Western Hemisphere, Borneo and Africa.
And current research at the museum will soon result in published descriptions of other new dinosaurs, reptiles and amphibians, fish and invertebrates.
Dr. Jason Cryan is deputy museum director for research and collections at the N.C. Museum of Natural Science ( http://naturalsciences.org).