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In a time when technology has made the world seem so accessible, Earth can seem a smaller place than it is. Discovering a new species can add knowledge and expand the ever-shrinking world a little bit more.
The year 2013 was one of discoveries for new species of plants and animals across the planet. In order to be considered new, a species has to meet certain requirements.
“For something to be named a new species requires that an expert taxonomist (a biologist who classifies species) be familiar enough with all similar known species to recognize the unique attributes of the species he/she is describing,” said John Mull, interim zoology chair at Weber State University.
The process does not end there. The official naming process requires a scientific peer-reviewed paper that the field’s leading experts have critically examined.
“For me, the most exciting new species found in 2013 is the olinguito of Ecuador and Colombia,” said WSU zoology professor Sam Zeveloff.
Zeveloff is also working with a group of students to start a new organization called Save the Ringtails. He said he hopes to provide education and conservation for ringtails, members of the raccoon family. The olinguito is among this family.
“We are excited about our website, which will go live in a few weeks,” Zeveloff said.
One of the new discoveries of 2013 came from WSU alumna Lori Spears, who earned her bachelor’s degree in zoology. She helped discover a new species of spider in a canyon near Logan, Utah.
The Theriodion logan spider is a favorite of WSU Zoology Club co-leader Andrew Corbin.
“This is my favorite new species for several reasons,” Corbin said. “First, it is exciting to know that there may be animals in our own backyards that are still unknown to science. Large animals usually get all of the press, and we tend to overlook the small things, such as spiders.”
Paleontologists also uncovered a new species of tyrannosaurus rex in southern Utah that is a smaller size than its cousin. This discovery pushed the line of T-rexes back 10 million years earlier than what was previously assumed.
Also in 2013, a new hammerhead shark named the Carolina hammerhead was discovered off the coast of the United States. Although there are not many physical differences between this hammerhead shark and that of its cousin, the scalloped hammerhead, the differences are apparent genetically.
Australia was a hotspot for species discoveries in 2013 with the finding of a new species of skink.
The Cape Melville shade skink is a gold-colored lizard that is in line with 1,500 cousins. The difference is that most skinks hunt their dinner up in trees, but this new species hunts insects among the rocks and fields.
The leaf-tailed gecko was another discovery in Australia last year. The leaf-tailed gecko family, which inhabits the northern part of Australia, dates back 510 million years to when Australia was joined with a larger land mass.
The Luchihormetica luckae is a species of cockroach also identified this year. This cockroach has pits on its exoskeleton filled with fluorescent bacteria, making these cockroaches glow in the dark.
NASA discovered a new form of microbe that is found in the most unlikely places. The only places on earth this microbe can be found is a borehole mine in Colorado and clean rooms in the Kennedy Space Center, as well as a clean room in Florida and another in a European space agency located in the French Guiana. This microbe is able to live in very nutrient-poor environments such as sterile rooms.
For students interested in species, membership in the WSU Zoology Club open to anyone who would like to join. Membership does not require any dues.
“We often conduct volunteer work with the Ogden Nature Center and the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Northern Utah,” Corbin said. “We also take field trips to the Hogle Zoo and The Living Planet Aquarium, where we take behind-the-scenes tours that other visitors do not have access to.”