552 new species described in 2021 including 90 beetles, 52 wasps, 13 moths, 7 crabs, 6 flies and 5 snakes 

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Rhabdophis bindi. A new species of snake from India and Bangladesh which lives in tropical evergreen forest. Credit: Abhijit Das

According to the Natural History Museum, 552 new species were described in 2021.

Despite international travel to field sites or other museum collections having remained largely off limits this past year, scientists and researchers at the Natural History Museum have continued their busy work in documenting the planet’s life and geology. 

Over the last 12 months, this has seen the researchers, curators and scientific associates describe 552 species new to science.

The discovered species range across the entire tree of life, from some of the smallest invertebrates swimming in the oceans to ferocious predators that stalked the land millions of years ago.The biggest and by far most fearsome new species to have been described this year are a pair of giant carnivorous dinosaurs known as spinosaurs.

Discovered by PhD student Jeremy Lockwood on the Isle of Wight, the predators have been named the ‘riverbank hunter’ and ‘hell heron’ after the swampy environment they would once have lived and hunted in

But the spinosaurs were just two of six new dinosaurs to have been described by Museum scientists, four of which were from the UK. These have included the truly bizarre Spicomellus afer, the earliest ankylosaur and first to have been found in Africa, Brighstoneus simmondsi, a new iguanodontian with an unusual snout also from the Isle of Wight, Pendraig milnerae, the earliest known carnivorous dinosaur from the UK, and Rhomaleopakhus turpanensis, a chunky sauropod from China.

Dr Susannah Maidment, a Senior Researcher in paleobiology at the Museum, who helped describe some of these new finds said:

‘It’s been a fantastic year for the description of new dinosaurs, especially from the UK.

‘Although we’ve known about the UK’s dinosaur heritage for over 150 years, the application of new techniques and new data from around the world is helping us to uncover a hidden diversity of British dinosaurs.

‘These specimens are parts of a vast palaeobiological jigsaw puzzle that allows us to understand environments of the past and how they changed over time.’

In addition to these discoveries, there have been a number of other fossil finds. These have included fossil bryozoans (or moss animals), algae, brachiopods and arachnids trapped in amber, but also an ancient herbivorous crocodile relative and two ancient mammals. The first of these, Megalomys camerhogne, belonged to a group of rodents which once lived scattered across the Caribbean, while the other, Borealestes cullinensis, is a ‘Jurassic mouse’ from Scotland that would have scurried around the feet of dinosaurs 166 million years ago.  

Many of the new species described this year have been crustaceans, in particular a group known as copepods.

These are small, shrimp-like creatures that are found anywhere there is water, from high mountain lakes to the deepest ocean trenches. Despite their small and unassuming appearance, they are critical to the planet’s ecology and carbon cycle. Forming the major component of zooplankton, they are vital food for fish, krill and other invertebrates.

Eurythenes atacamensis. One of two colour morphs of giant isopod from the Atacama Trench off the coasts of Peru and Chile. Credit: Weston et al., 2021

This incredible abundance means copepods are one of the biggest carbon sinks in the oceans. Commensurate with this importance in marine ecosystems, scientists at the Museum have described an incredible 291 species of copepods this year.

Crinitostella laguardai. It is a deep-sea wood-dwelling seastar from the Gulf of Mexico which feeds on wood at the bottom of the ocean. Credit: Martin-Cao-Romero et al., 2021

Along with his colleague in South Korea, Prof Geoff Boxshall, Merit Researcher in the department of Life Sciences at the Museum, has spent the last year working his way through an immense collection created over a period of six decades by French researchers Claude and Francoise Monniot who, when studying sea squirts, saved every copepod they found and preserved them. Geoff explains:

‘Copepods are not only free-living but many are parasites, and they can be found living in virtually every other major animal group.

‘I have been focusing my research on these parasitic copepods from fishes and marine invertebrate hosts.  

‘The huge Monniot collection was made available to Il-Hoi Kim and myself, and as we are both recently retired, we theoretically had time to finally go through it. However, the collection was so enormous it was somewhat daunting – but then Covid-19 happened.

‘Completing the series of papers became my lockdown project when I was unable to enter the Museum.’

In addition to the extraordinary work by Geoff and his colleague to document the copepods, Museum scientists have also described 52 species of wasps, 13 moths, seven crabs, six flies and five amphipods. 

Once again there was also an impressive haul of beetles with 90 new species described this year.

This has included a pair of glitteringly purple and green metallic beetles from India, a chunky monochromatic beetle with a large pair of jaws from the Philippines, and a minute marsh loving beetle named in honour of the Chief Mouser of 10 Downing Street, Larry the cat.

Caccothryptus larryi. A minute marsh-loving beetle from India named after the Chief Mouser of 10 Downing Street, Larry the cat. Credit: Matsumoto, 2021

One of the most enigmatic new species was actually known by its song for decades before the animal itself was seen. In 1990 a paper was published describing the song of a bush-cricket from Southeast Asia, despite the animal which produced it being unknown.

This year it was finally determined that the seductive stridulations were the sweet song of a species found in Singapore now known as Mecopoda simonodoi, a specimen of which has actually been sitting in the collections since 1984.

There have been a number of other new species from across the board, including five new species of plants from eastern Africa.

Known as jewelweeds or touch-me-nots, they usually produce delicate pink or white flowers, except for a few species which have switched to producing red flowers. This is because rather than being pollinated by butterflies the flowers are instead visited by birds, which find it easier to pick the colour red out from amongst green foliage.

In addition to the plants, there have been eight new species of algae, six parasitic worms and three diatoms.

Finally, there have been ten new species of reptiles and amphibians. Of these, five are new snakes including one new species, now called Joseph’s racer, which was described with the help of a 185-year-old painting.

Rhabdophis bindi. A new species of snake from India and Bangladesh which lives in tropical evergreen forest. Credit: Abhijit Das

Three new species of lizards have been described, including a fan-throated lizard and a gecko from India.

While one new species of frog from Vietnam makes the list, another species was declared as likely being extinct. There has also been a new species of caecilian, a type of snake-like amphibian which lives primarily underground and in the water.

With the world continuing to warm at an unprecedented rate it has never been more important to record what is currently alive and what has been here before, with every single species playing a crucial role in the functioning of our planet.

Another of the biggest science stories this year was when, during lockdown in February, a large chunk of space rock burnt through the atmosphere before coming to a sudden stop on a driveway in the Gloucestershire town of Winchcombe.

Hundreds of people spotted the fireball streaking across the night sky, and within a matter of hours researchers were able to get out and recover over 600 grams of the meteorite that had travelled billions of kilometres and reached over 1,6000C as it burnt through the atmosphere.

Now officially classified as the Winchcombe meteorite, it is one of only 603 approved meteorites classified as carbonaceous chondrites. Each official meteorite becomes its own type specimen, which is roughly analogous to being a new species.   

‘The Winchcombe meteorite is the first meteorite fall to be recovered in the UK for 30 years,’ says Dr Helena Bates, a researcher at the Museum who was involved with recovering the Winchcombe meteorite.

‘Winchcombe is thought to come from an asteroid that has remained largely unchanged since the birth of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago.’

Source: Natural History Museum

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