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.

Pseudoscience Be Gone: Climate Change

Welcome back, dear readers, and I hope you’re ready for some inconvenient truths. (Is that reference too dated? I’m still new to this blogging thing.)

This entry is part of a section called Pseudoscience Be Gone, in which I will confront (sadly) common pseudoscientific beliefs with cold, hard facts. In this entry, I won’t be talking about the actual pseudoscientific beliefs much; instead, I will focus on the evidence that exists to support the ideas that 1) global warming is real and 2) humans are having a profound effect on global warming.

I’ll start by discussing what climate change actually is. “Climate” can be described as “the average weather”, and when it comes to “climate change”, the scientific definition of climate change is often different than the political one. The scientific definition is “a change in the statistical properties of the climate system on a large scale over long periods of time”. “Statistical properties” means averages—such as average temperature or average concentration of carbon dioxide in the air—as well as how much those properties vary. The “climate system” is the sum of five zones covering the Earth, including the atmosphere and the biosphere (the portion of the Earth populated by living things). As far as the political definition, when most people talk about climate change these days, what they really mean is anthropogenic global warming: the increase in the Earth’s surface temperature caused by humans. That “large scale and long periods of time” bit from the scientific definition still applies, though; anthropogenic global warming refers to what’s happening to the entire Earth over hundreds of years. So the next time someone brings up El Niño in a discussion about climate change, you can tell them that that doesn’t count; the change doesn’t last long enough.

“Global warming is real! Science shows that!” is something I hear a lot from frustrated people who are in touch with the truth. And they’re right, but how do scientists figure out that the Earth is getting warmer, and what evidence do they actually have? That’s what I’d like to focus on for the rest of this entry. As a cancer biologist, I started research for this entry without much knowledge on how environmental scientists actually gather evidence for climate change. There are a number of sources that scientists can turn to when looking at how Earth’s climate has changed over time: ice cores, fossil records, sediment layers, floral and faunal records, and meteorological stations.

I do love fossils, but my favorite climate change information source to research was the ice cores. Ice cores are cylindrical samples of ice taken with a special kind of drill called a core drill, and they provide some of the best records for investigating past climate conditions. Not only can some of the deeper cores contain information that go back hundreds of thousands of years, they can be used to figure out data on this long list of conditions at a given time:

  • Temperature
  • Strength of air circulation in the atmosphere
  • Precipitation (rain/snowfall)
  • Ocean volume
  • Dust in the atmosphere
  • Volcanic eruptions
  • Solar variability
  • Amount of sea ice
  • Rate at which energy is converted to organic substances by marine life
  • Geographic extent of deserts
  • Forest fires
  • Radioactivity

How is this possible? Well, all of those can be figured out by looking at the levels of materials like dust, ash, and human pollutants in the air. Snowfall captures those things, and in some places (such as the poles), that snow doesn’t melt. Ice cores provide valuable information about the ambient temperature, which has been useful in the hunt for evidence of anthropogenic global warming. Certain molecules—like deuterium, which is hydrogen with an extra neutron—have a known relationship with temperature, so scientists can determine temperatures at specific years from the concentration of deuterium at a particular point in the ice core. Known geological events, such as an extremely powerful volcanic eruption in 1815, can be used as “dating horizons” to figure out approximately what year an ice core layer is from. Increased radioactivity from nuclear bomb testing is also often used as one of these “dating horizons”.

As I mentioned, I also like fossils. One of the things that the fossil record does for scientists is to divide up geologic time, often by showing extinction events. (Well, okay, the division of Earth’s history into periods is mostly based on visible changes in layers of sedimentary rock, but fossils are involved too.) The fossil record currently shows seven mass extinctions, my favorite of which is the Great Dying, when 96% of all marine life and 70% of all land-dwelling vertebrates died due to a possible asteroid impact and one of the most tremendous known volcanic eruptions on Earth. (If you ever want nightmares, look up “formation of Siberian Traps”.) That extinction event ended the Permian period and began the Triassic period. Periods are divided into epochs, which are further divided into ages; more on why that is important later. For now, I want to talk about foraminifera.

Foraminifera are tiny protozoans with carbonate shells. While these little critters are alive, their shells are formed from the elements found in the water where they live. Paleontologists can look at the ratios of elements in foraminifera shells and be able to tell how much of the Earth’s surface was covered in ice when the animals were alive. This is important because it provides valuable information on a time when rapid climate change—that thing that’s happening now—happened before. This rapid climate change, which marked the end of the Eocene epoch and the beginning of the Oligocene epoch, was actually a transition from a “greenhouse” climate to a much cooler one. This rapid cooling led to one of those mass extinction events I was talking about earlier. So rapid changes in the Earth’s overall temperature? Those don’t bode well for the things living here.

So we have all this evidence. What does it show, exactly? One of the things we have learned about climate change is that starting in the Industrial Revolution—let’s say 1750—ice cores show dramatically increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane. To be specific, there has been a 40% increase in the concentration of carbon dioxide since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Carbon dioxide and methane are what is known as “greenhouse gases”, or gases that absorb and emit heat. These gases are the main cause of the “greenhouse effect”, which is what happens when a planet’s atmosphere warms its surface to a higher temperature than what it would be without the atmosphere. Higher concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere cause higher surface temperatures.

The Earth has had atmospheric carbon dioxide levels this high before: in an age called the Pliocene, which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has called the “benchmark for modern global warming”. Dr. Aradhna Tripati, an assistant professor at UCLA who studies Earth Sciences and is so smart she started university when she was 12 (really), says “Our data from the early Pliocene, when carbon dioxide levels remained close to modern levels for thousands of years, may indicate how warm the planet will eventually become if carbon dioxide levels are stabilized at the current value of 400 parts per million”. What Dr. Tripati is saying is that the Earth is currently on the bullet train to having a climate like the Pliocene’s, which would mean summertime Arctic temperatures 18 to 15 C warmer than they are today. Meteorological station records show that the Earth’s surface temperature had increased a little over half a degree Celsius in the past century, and just that is already causing hotter days, heavier rainfall, stronger hurricanes, and more severe droughts. Now imagine what might happen if the Earth gets 15 C warmer. One thing we can predict is that if the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere doesn’t change, there could be no sea ice in 50 to 100 years.

Humans have had such a profound impact on the climate that many geologists believe that we have entered a new geological age: the Anthropocene Age. While there is not a consensus in the scientific community regarding the Anthropocene Age, it is still extremely telling that humans have changed our environment so much that some experts are claiming that we have entered a new period of geological time. While we haven’t made a noticeable change in the sediment layers, 12% of land masses are now cropland. On the topic of humans cultivating so much land, Dr. Anna Behrensmeyer, a paleoecologist with the National Museum of Natural History, says “the shift from forest to grassland took millions of years, but the pace and rates were nothing like they are now. With the rates now, you don’t really give the animals and plants a chance to evolve”. Dr. Thomas Lovejoy, the Smithsonian assistant secretary for external affairs, cautions “biological systems can take it, and take it, and take it, then all of a sudden there’s a tremendous reordering”. So it looks like we’re headed for a “tremendous reordering” from all the meddling we’ve been doing with the environment.

So the next time some ill-informed soul tells you climate change is a hoax, tell them about ice cores and foraminifera. And remember: science doesn’t care what you believe.

Credit to my sister-of-the-heart Rocky Blonshine for geology tips and my biological nuclear family for reading.