We hear a lot about all the species we're losing in the world due to climate change, and issues such as deforestation and urbanization, among others. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, the scientists who usually spend their time trying to discover new organisms finally got a chance to document, or describe, the backlog of species that had already been discovered.
Officially describing a species involves writing a scientific paper in which the discoverers argue that a plant, animal, fungus or other organism actually is a new species rather than a subspecies of something else we already know about. The researchers have to select an individual specimen that represents all the attributes typical of that species, and they also give the species a Latin name. It's a laborious process, but in 2021, scientists at the Natural History Museum (NHM) in London took a little time to wade through and publish the data they've collected on 552 previously undescribed organisms.
Here are a few of our favorites:
Ceratosuchops inferodios and Riparovenator milnerae, Two Spinosaurid Dinosaurs
The coolest species, arguably, described by NHM scientists are also, sadly, long extinct. Ceratosuchops inferodios was a spinosaurid dinosaur that lived on the Isle of Wight nearly 130 million years ago. Its fossils were discovered alongside another similar species called Riparovenator milnerae, or the "riverbank hunter." These two predators most likely lived and hunted near rivers and wetlands, possibly at the same time.
A Copepod Bonanza
Over half of the NHM-described species were crustaceans called copepods. This group of animals can be found all over the world, in high mountain lakes and in the deepest trenches of the ocean. Some copepods are parasitic and others are free-living, but they're an important food source for both freshwater aquatic and marine systems worldwide. Over 290 of the species described by NHM scientists in 2021 were copepods.
Wallace's Sphinx Moth
Back in the 1860s, both Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace noticed an orchid with an 11-inch-long (30-centimeter) nectar tube. Knowing that certain groups of moths use their long tongues to lap nectar out of these flowers, both scientists commented in their field notes that it would take an especially long tongue to reach the nectar of this flower. Wallace went so far as to predict a hawkmoth with a long proboscis, writing, " ... naturalists who visit that island should search for it with as much confidence as astronomers searched for the planet Neptune — and they will be equally successful."
A century and a half later, Wallace's moth has been described. Its name? Xanthopan praedicta.
Sometimes it's hard to tell one species apart from another, but luckily 2021 resolved a 200-year mix-up between a very common species and one uncommon species of snake in India.
A couple of centuries ago, scientists identified a species of snake, which eventually became lumped into another species through a series of misidentifications.
In 2021, scientists were examining an excruciatingly detailed 185-year-old painting of a snake held by the NHM when they realized they had not been paying attention to the size and number of head scales of the banded racer (Platyceps plinii), a common snake species across India. It turns out, it depicted a different species, now called Joseph's racer (Platyceps josephi), which has a much smaller geographical distribution and is pickier about habitat type than the banded racer.