Despite an uncertain year, Natural History Museum scientists described 503 new species to science in 2020.
The year saw much activity at the Museum slow down and some of it come to a halt, as the Museum closed its doors to the public for the longest time since the Second World War. But through all this, researchers and scientists have been continuing their crucial work when and where they can.
Over the last 12 months, many have continued working and publishing with Museum scientists – including researchers, curators and scientific associates – managing to describe 503 new species from almost all kingdoms of life, ranging from lichen, wasps and barnacles to minerals, miniature tarantulas and a monkey.
“Once again, an end of year tally of new species has revealed a remarkable diversity of life forms and minerals hitherto undescribed,” explains Dr Tim Littlewood, Executive Director of Science at the Natural History Museum.
“The Museum’s collection of specimens provide a resource within which to find new species as well as a reference set to recognise specimens and species as new.
“Revealing new and undescribed species not only sustains our awe of the natural world, it further reveals what we stand to lose and helps estimate the diversity we may lose even before it’s discovered. Our understanding of the natural world’s diversity is negligible and yet we depend on its systems, interconnectedness and complexity for food, water, climate resilience and the air we breathe.
“In a year when the global mass of biodiversity is being outweighed by human-made mass it feels like a race to document what we are losing. 503 newly discovered species reminds us we represent a single, inquisitive, and immensely powerful species with the fate of many others in our hands.”
The highlight this year is a new species of monkey found living on the side of an extinct volcano in Myanmar which was identified using skins and bones that have been in the Museum’s collection for over 100 years. It was named the Popa langur (Trachypithecus popa) after the mountain on which it is found and sadly already considered to be critically endangered with only 200-260 individuals left in the wild.
“We hope that the naming of the species will help in its conservation,” says Roberto Portela Miguez, the Senior Curator in Charge of Mammals at the Museum who helped describe the new species.
Over the past 12 months researchers have described a total of three plants, three red seaweeds, ten ciliates, four diatoms and a lichen.
One of these species, Corallina chamberlainiae, is a beautifully delicate looking seaweed that is found in the cold south Atlantic waters off some of the planet’s most remote islands including the Falkland Islands and Tristan da Cunha, revealing a connectivity between these places despite the vast distances that separate the two.
It has been another good year for the reptiles and amphibians, with a crested lizard from Borneo, two new species of frog and an impressive nine new snakes, including a beautiful viper.
One particularly weird new species is a lungless worm salamander (Oedipina ecuatoriana) which is known only from a single specimen held by the Museum which was collected over a hundred years ago. These curious amphibians breathe through their skin and make their home by burrowing through the rainforest soil.
Ken Norris, Head of Life Sciences at the Natural History Museum explains: “Our collections are made up of 80 million specimens and contain a huge range of species and a deep history that is key to allowing our scientists to be certain that they have found a creature which is new to science.
“These discoveries go to show the vital role that natural history collections around the world continue to play in describing new species and the hidden diversity that is contained within the collections.”
Topping the new species list are the beetles, with 170 new species named this year. These include a cohort of scarab beetles from New Guinea, riffle beetles from Brazil and a minute marsh-loving beetle from Malawi.
Coming in second place for the invertebrates are the bees and wasps with 70 new wasp and three new bee species discovered, including Bombus tibeticus. Found in Mongolia, it is one of the highest recorded species of bumblebee in world as it buzzes around the Tibetan Plateau at 5640 metres above sea level in search of nectar.
Next up are the snails, with 51 species both fossil and living. Many of the living ones are from the deep sea, while the extinct species are helping to show how north western Europe was once a teaming coral sea host to a diversity of life comparable to what is seen in south-east Asia today.
One new species, a parasitic worm Pseudoacanthocephalus goodmani, had a slightly unusual route to discovery. It was found in the faecal pellets of a guttural toad, after this rather unlucky amphibian made the accidental journey from its native Mauritius to the suburbs of Cambridge in the luggage of a tourist, topped off by surviving a cycle in a washing machine before being noticed.
There have also been nine species of moths, six new species of centipedes, nine flatworms, one butterfly and ten bryozoans, also known as moss animals.
It is not only the living that researchers have been describing in droves. This year saw Museum scientists name 122 new fossil species.
Many of these were either barnacles or crinoids (the group which contains starfish, sea urchins and sea lilies). It also included a few oddities, such as a tiny spider that lived alongside the dinosaurs and is now trapped in amber, a fish which has changed our understanding of how jaws evolved and a number of coprolites (fossil faecal matter).
One particularly peculiar creature is Armilimax pauljamisoni, a bizarre shell-bearing animal that has been described as an armoured ‘slug’. Found in rocks dating back to the Cambrian (541-485 million years ago) it had thus far defied classification.
The fossil slug is joined by the largest of this year’s critters: a giant fossil wombat-like marsupial described from Australia. Named Mukupirna nambensis, meaning ‘big bones’ in Dieri, the Aboriginal language spoken in the region where the fossil was found, it lived 25 million years ago and grew as large as a black bear.
Ten new mineral species were described this year from all around the world, including California, Greece, The Democratic Republic of Congo, Russia and even the UK. With only around 6,000 known species of minerals, this is a hugely significant contribution.
“Between 100-120 new minerals are described globally every year,” explains Mike Rumsey, the Principal Curator of Minerals at the Museum. It is even rarer to get some from the UK.
“This only happens every three or four years. We’ve actually had two this year, but normally it is less than that.”
One of these new minerals is called kernowite. Originating from just a single location in Cornwall, a mine that has since been closed and built on, this beautiful emerald-green mineral is even more impressive for the size of its crystals. It is named after Kernow, the Cornish word for Cornwall.
Ken Norris concludes: “With the world changing at an astonishing pace through climate and land use change as well as other numerous pressures on the natural world, it has never been more important to record life on our planet.
“To protect and preserve life on our planet we need to document and understand it. Thanks to the astonishing effort of the Museum’s researchers during this difficult past year, we now know just that little bit more.”
The general public will be able to see just how hard at work the scientists have been when The Natural History Museum stars in a brand-new four-part primetime Channel 5 series next year.
Natural History Museum: World of Wonder, will air weekly from 7th January, 8pm on Channel 5 and will be available to view on the video on demand player My5.