Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The world's smallest snake, a prehistoric ant and microbes that may be 120,000 years old: These are just a few of the species revealed to the world in the last 12 months.

With animals going extinct at rates unseen since the dinosaurs disappeared, it's nice to be reminded that some species haven't even been discovered.

As Smithsonian Institute ornithologist Brian Schmidt said after finding the olive-backed forest robin: "It is definitely a reminder that the world still holds surprises for us."

Left: Stiphrornis pyrrholaeumus, also known as the olive-backed forest robin, was found during a biodiversity expedition in Gabon. Scientists know little more about S. pyrrholaeumus other than it exists.

Leptotyphlops carlae was found in a patch of forest on the eastern side of Barbados. Thin as a spaghetti noodle and small enough to curl up on a quarter, it's believed to embody the evolutionary limits of snake smallness.

Only three specimens of Martialis heureka have been found, all outside the Amazon jungle city of Manaus — but that's all scientists needed to trace a direct evolutionary lineage to the last known ancestor of all living ants, a subterranean creature that lived 120 million years ago.

The first new elephant shrew in 126 years, the 18-ounce Rhynchocyon udzungwensis — also called the grey-faced sengi — is a giant in its family (which, technically, are not shrews, though they are distantly related to elephants).

Undiscovered parasites are relatively common, but Myrmeconema neotropicum does something no other parasite can: mimic fruit. The abdomens of infected ants swell and turn bright red, making them easy targets for berry-hungry birds who then spread M. neotropicum's eggs in their droppings.

Carpomys melanurus, or the greater dwarf cloud rat, was first observed 112 years ago, and never seen again. Until it was found again in the rain-forest treetops of the Philippines, scientists thought it was extinct.

Tridacna costata is the first giant clam species found in two decades, and not a moment too soon: Fossil evidence suggests it once made up 80 percent of Red Sea giant clams, and now accounts for just 1 percent.

When Philadelphia's Academy of Natural Sciences collection manager Mark Sabaj Pérez needed to name a new catfish, he thought immediately of Frank Gallagher, who managed the Academy's mail room for 37 years.

"I wanted to honor Frank for his many years of dedicated service to the global community of taxonomists and systematists in handling the shipping and receiving of countless loans of biological specimens," said Pérez. "I was impressed by Frank's dedication, his love for fellow employees, and his keen interest in the science we do. I simply thought, here is a guy who should be honored with his own catfish." The result was Rhinodoras gallagheri.

When biologists in New Zealand compared modern yellow-eyed penguins to centuries-old museum specimens, they realized that the birds were not the same species. Megadyptes waitaha is a brand-new species that's already extinct.

With only 8,000 of an estimated 3 million bacterial species identified, new bugs aren't hard to find. But unlike Chryseobacterium greenlandensis, they don't usually date from the late Pleistocene.

Thawed from ice recovered two miles below the surface of a 120,000-year-old Greenland glacier, C. greenlandensis appears unchanged by its time in deep-freeze. Its discoverers aren't sure whether it shut down or just slowed down its metabolism.

"There may be some metabolism occurring in the ice. If they have been dividing, it may be on a very low rate, on a scale we're not accustomed to — so slow, they could be dividing every 100 or 1,000 years," said Penn State biochemist Jennifer Loveland-Curtze.

Asked whether her samples may not have divided at all, and have survived in suspended animation for 120,000 years, Loveland-Curtze replied, "We don't know yet."

And there's more: 120,000 years could be the low end of C. greenlandensis' age.

"The bottom of the ice core had sediment where the glacier had rubbed against the earth," said Jean Brenchley, a Penn State microbiologist. "We don't know if the microorganisms were from snow that was deposited and became trapped, or were scooped up from the permafrost and there for millions of years."

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