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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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.