Well, This Is Cool: Amaranthe’s Five Favorite Species Discovered in 2016

Content note: snake (for anyone out there who has ophidiophobia)

Hello, dear readers, and welcome to the first “Well, This Is Cool” entry of Immortal Amaranthe. I will be the first to admit that this is not the timeliest of entries, because today I want to talk about some of the new species that were discovered in 2016. I was surprised at how many new species were discovered last year, both prehistoric and extant, so I have chosen to discuss my five favorites.

I will also be the first to admit that I chose these species were chosen mostly because of their names. I am still a scientist at heart, and scientists have…interesting ideas about names. The thing you have to understand about naming conventions in science is that scientists are nerds, and that we’re weird. For example, there exists a mushroom named Spongiforma squarepantsii after the character Spongebob Squarepants. The worst offenders when it comes to weird names are the Drosophila melanogaster (fruit fly) biologists. Check out some of these fruit fly gene names:

-Ken and Barbie (mutation leads to lack of external genitalia)
-Lush (mutation leads to unusual attraction to ethanol, propanol, and butanol)
-Halloween genes: disembodied, spook, spookier, shade, shroud, phantom (code for P450 enzymes involved in synthesis of steroid hormones; mutations result in spooky-looking embryos)
-Tinman (mutations result in no heart)
-Van Gogh (mutations result in swirling of hair on wing, resembling a Van Gogh painting)
-Swiss cheese (mutations cause brain degeneration, leading to holes in the brain)
-Sonic hedgehog (one of a set of three genes that were already called two kinds of hedgehog based on mutations causing the appearance of spiny projections)

Now that I have firmly established how weird naming conventions are in science, let’s continue. I want to mention that saying these species were “discovered” may be inaccurate. For some of these organisms, it might be more accurate to say “the locals were aware of these species but they weren’t catalogued by Western scientists”. However, it is also possible that the locals knew about these critters but weren’t aware of their taxonomical significance. (Taxonomy is the science of classification.)

You know what, I’m going to go further into the idea of “discovering” new species at this point in time, because when I decided to write this entry, I had no idea how many new species are discovered every year. I thought I would have trouble finding five, but according to several sources I found while researching, between fifteen and eighteen thousand species are discovered a year. (Interesting note: about half of these new species are insects.) I know that numbers that large are usually not written out, but I had to write them out so I could italicize them. This does include corrections of previous taxonomical errors and paleontological discoveries, so that number doesn’t reflect the number of totally new and existing critters that are stumbled across for the first time by any human being, but still. Wow.

Here are common ways new species can be “discovered”:

  • New species were in museums but not examined closely enough to be correctly identified
  • Two or more species look so similar that they were mistakenly identified as the same, but DNA sequencing has realized that they are dissimilar enough to be classified as separate species
  • Scientists looking to “discover” species that have not previously been classified don’t want to look in areas where the political climate is unstable
  • Paleontologists uncover new skeletal remains
  • Researchers explore areas where there is an unusual amount of biodiversity

With that sorted, let’s get down to my favorite five species that were “discovered” in 2016.

The first species I want to discuss is Grammatonotus brianne, called “Brianne’s groppo”, which is surprisingly colorful (at least to me) for living in such deep water. Brianne’s groppo lives in on a reef in the Philippines’ Verde Island Passage known as a “twilight zone” reef, so called because the waters—at a depth between 150 and 500 feet deep—are murky, but there is some light. Brianne’s groppo can be found a depth that is almost out of the “twilight zone” range: 490 feet (150 meters). Why do I think that Brianne’s groppo is so cool? Because it is the deepest-dwelling fish that humans have ever collected…with their own hands. Literally. Previously, humans had only been able to collect such deep-dwelling fish with remote-control submarines, but divers collected this colorful groppo with the help of new diving technology.

Here it is:

Screen Shot 2017-07-14 at 2.21.25 PM

https://reefs.com/2016/10/04/grammatonotus-brianne-spectacular-new-species-mesophotic-groppo/

Image description: small, mostly bright yellow fish with a reddish pink back and a large spade-shaped tail

The next new species discovered in 2016 is my favorite because of my interest in Star Trek: the Tylototriton anguliceps, called the “Klingon newt”. It is so named because of the projections on its forehead, which somewhat resemble the forehead ridges on the Klingons from Star Trek (specifically, The Next Generation, Voyager, and Deep Space Nine).

Here’s a Klingon:

Screen Shot 2017-07-20 at 6.26.24 PM

http://memory-beta.wikia.com/wiki/Worf,_son_of_Mogh

Image description: a broad-shouldered man with medium brown skin and well-defined mountain range-like ridges on his forehead wearing a red Starfleet uniform and long, wavy dark brown hair pulled back into a ponytail

And here’s a Klingon newt:

Screen Shot 2017-07-20 at 6.26.48 PM

https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2016/12/22/southeast-asia-species-discovery-newts/95752938/

Image description: a tiny newt with an extremely dark brown body and bright orange limbs, tail, and three ridges on its back, and projections on its head that resemble the forehead ridges of a Klingon

The Klingon newt lives in northeastern Thailand. Its habitat is part of the Greater Mekong region, a large area that includes Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and southern parts of China. The Greater Mekong area is extremely biodiverse, and a large number of previously un-catalogued species have been found recently. That “recently” doesn’t just include 2016, either; since 1997, over 2,200 new species have been described in the region, even in the urban areas. The World Wildlife Federation is paying close attention to this region because the ecosystem there is incredibly intricate and delicate, and many species there are threatened or endangered. For example, the Greater Mekong region is home to the world’s largest tiger habitat, but in the past decade, tiger population numbers have plummeted by 70%.

Speaking of the Greater Mekong region, the third new species that I want to discuss was also found there, this time in Laos: the “Ziggy Stardust” snake. Its scientific name is Parafimbrios lao, but its colloquial name was chosen because of its colors; it is also called the “rainbow-headed” snake, and for good reason.

Here’s the rainbow-headed Ziggy Stardust snake:

Screen Shot 2017-07-22 at 2.46.07 PM.png

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/gallery/2016/dec/19/ziggy-stardust-snake-and-klingon-newt-among-163-new-species-discovered-in-mekong-in-pictures

Image description: medium gray-brown snake with iridescent rainbow scales on its head

The Ziggy Stardust snake is unusual because it is visibly different from any other species that has already been catalogued, no DNA sequencing required. The Klingon newt, with its distinctive forehead structures, is similarly unusual. And I think both the newt and the snake are cute. Yes, I think snakes are cute. We have established that scientists are weird.

Continuing with the trend of weird/interesting names, the next species I’m going to discuss is the “devil orchid”. Even the scientific name sounds demonic: Telipogon diabolicus. (Not as good as “Spongiforma squarepantsii”, but I like it.) The flower has a reproductive structure in its center that looks like a devil’s face.

Here is the devil orchid:

Screen Shot 2017-07-22 at 1.07.25 PM

https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/extinction-countdown/devil-orchid/

Image description: white translucent orchid with bright pinkish red veins and a dark maroon center that looks ridiculously like a pointy-eared devil

Unfortunately, only about 30 of these flowers are known to exist, in a tiny stretch of Colombian forest. Worse, that forest could soon be cut down so a new road can be laid down. It may not be the only Colombian orchid that is at risk for this particular fate. I don’t know about you, but I’d be willing to put that road in a slightly different place to preserve these cool-looking flowers.

I saved perhaps my favorite name for last: the prehistoric Muppet-faced fish. Yes, you read that right.

Look at this thing’s mouth:

Screen Shot 2017-07-22 at 2.10.37 PM

https://www.livescience.com/53660-muppet-faced-fish.html

Image description: artist’s rendition of two large gray-scaled fish with enormous mouths that resemble the mouths of Sesame Street Muppets in shape and proportion

I know it’s an artist’s rendition, but don’t those mouths look so much like Muppet mouths? Those mouths were big, too; these fish were about 2 meters (6.5 feet) long, including a head that measured half a meter (1.5 feet). Their mouths were about 0.3 of a meter (1 foot) in diameter. I know they look (and sound, knowing how big they were) a bit freaky, so if this helps, those gaping mouths were actually designed to consume plankton.

Up until recently (about February of 2016), only one species of this fish had been discovered. A new study, though, helped paleobiologists realize that there are more of these Muppet-faced fish species, which belong to the genus Rhinconicthys. How did they figure this out? Skulls from three separate global regions. Remarkably, only one skull was found per region, but a wealth of information was gleaned from those single skulls. Species currently identified include Rhinconicthys purgatoirensis, found in the Purgatoire River valley in Colorado, and Rhinconicthys utenyoi, found in Hokkaido, Japan, and Rhinconicthys taylori, found in England.

Well, I learned a lot writing this entry, and I hope you did too, dear readers! If nothing else, you now have a solid idea of how weird scientists are in our naming conventions.

Tales From the Bench: Why I Left Laboratory Science

Hello, dear readers. First of all, I want to say that this isn’t going to be a standard “Tales From the Bench” entry. Most of my “Tales From the Bench” posts are going to be interesting (I hope), but be about events slightly more mundane than me deciding to leave bench work forever. Yes, that’s what I’m going to talk about today: why I left the bench.

There’s an expression that I have found useful many times in my life: the straw that broke the camel’s back. I had been miserable for a long time at my job and was doing such a tremendous job putting up a happy front that I was not entirely in touch with how unhappy I was. I was commuting four hours a day—two hours there, two hours back—and when I felt run-down, I said the commute was getting to me.

It wasn’t just the commute. Bench science has an extremely high-pressure environment.

One of my coworkers at my last job (no, I’m not giving a name; I’ll call her N) was far more experienced than I was, so while she was not technically my supervisor, she often acted as such. N frequently told me that there was a lot of pressure on her, which is why she put pressure on me; she acted like it was entirely fair that she took her frustration out on me. This frequently took the form of speaking to me in a tone that screamed “Oh my God, I don’t think you have a brain; what is wrong with you?”, requiring absolute perfection even when I was still learning a new procedure, acting like mistakes meant incompetence, and blaming me for problems in our research that might have been either of our faults. I had to spend a lot of emotional labor responding to N in ways that she would find acceptable despite my instincts that she was being unfair. Not to mention it took a lot of energy to build myself back up after her behavior chipped away at my self-esteem. When I finally worked up the courage to tell N that her teaching style was not always conducive to my learning style, she shut me down, telling me I was too sensitive and comparing me to a child who didn’t understand why her parents were disciplining her. Instead of listening to me, she delegitimized my experiences and infantilized me. That was not the first day she made me cry.

And my experience with that coworker? That was nothing. I’ve been through way worse. I don’t know if I have had a single laboratory experience that didn’t involve a superior who was somehow callous, unfair, or outright nasty.

I don’t know what it is about lab science, but that field seems to have an abundance of people who are difficult to work with. The high percentage of scientists who have acerbic personalities at work seem to be about half the problem; the other half is money. The primary investigator is almost always either applying for funding or waiting to get funding or getting applications for funding rejected, which puts them under pressure and makes them cranky. They are then cranky to their subordinates, who are then cranky to their subordinates, and the people at the lowest level get it the worst. (Not that the stress of being a PI isn’t also a different kind of unparalleled stress; by “it”, I refer here to being the target of crankiness.) This exacerbates the fact that—at least to me—many scientists don’t seem to have good people skills. (I definitely include myself in this statement.) The result is people tearing each other down when they should be building each other up (I’m not saying every scientist does this, just that in my experience, it happens way too much in laboratory settings), and I can’t handle that. I’m sure there are labs out there where everyone is decent to each other and the higher-ups are skilled, patient teachers to students and newer researchers, but I wasn’t about to spend my life looking.

Bench work is also emotionally exhausting unless you have a certain temperament. You can spend two days on a complicated procedure, make a tiny mistake, and ruin everything. You can spend two days on a complicated procedure, make no mistakes, and the procedure can still not work, because that’s how science goes. You can spend months on a project and your refrigerator can break and ruin all your samples. You can spend years on a project and have everything ruined by someone from another lab putting a mouse cage back in the wrong place, flooding the mouse room, and drowning your mice. (This happened to another PI while I was working at my last laboratory job.) You can spend a decade and hundreds of thousands of dollars on a project and your hypothesis turns out to be wrong. You have to not care about these extremely frequent setbacks, or at least you have to be amazing at picking yourself up, dusting yourself off, and continuing, especially when there are people yelling at you for things that went wrong that may have not even be your fault. It takes a toll. Even N, who had been in science for decades, told me she had nightmares about experiments not working. (I had nightmares too. Usually about her.)

When it comes to laboratory bench work, I have the skills. But I do not have the temperament. I am too affected when procedures don’t work.

The straw that broke the camel’s back for me, the event that made me realize why I was miserable at work and that I didn’t have the personality to be a lab researcher, was this: I came back after a week-long illness on a Monday, and when I sat down with N and my lab notebook and asked her to catch me up, she told me that almost all of our cells had been contaminated the previous week. Three months of work were gone. There was no way to tell which of us had made the error that contaminated our cells, so of course she blamed me. She said in that voice that screamed “you’re so incompetent I can’t stand it”, “I am telling you very nicely to be careful”. Nicely. Sure, N. Sure.

The misery I had been suppressing for weeks erupted when I arrived home. I burst into tears that didn’t seem to want to stop and poured out all my frustrations to my parents. They cautioned me not to make any snap decisions, as I had been dedicated to the idea of being a biomedical researcher for nearly two decades, but the camel’s back had been broken. I knew the truth: I wasn’t cut out for bench work.

I tried to continue working—I knew the smartest thing to do was find a new job before I quit—but my work quickly started suffering. I had previously pushed forward despite being miserable because I actually enjoyed doing some of the procedures, and I had been motivated to get through the two or three years in the lab before returning to graduate school (and getting away from N). My enjoyment of the procedures was completely gone and I no longer wanted a PhD. Without my motivation, my ability to concentrate—which was required for stretches of six hours at a time for certain procedures—began to deteriorate. I decided to get out before I made a mistake that would seriously impair the PI’s research. I put in my two weeks’ notice.

And here I am today! I’m freelancing to build my portfolio, writing this blog (if not as prolifically as I would like), and searching for a full-time job. As for why I picked writing…that might be a story for another day.