Sunday, December 2, 2007

Frontiers of animal discovery

One of the most exciting aspects of the study of biology must be the discovery of new species of animal. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of new species of bacteria and insects discovered every year, and not to take away from the diligent researchers making these discoveries, but the discovery of a new animal is especially unique. At first, it seems incredible that an undiscovered species can exist when you consider the population of the earth, and the geographic penetration of populations of humans into every land area of the plant. But on the other hand, consider that these "new discoveries" are not necessarily new to humankind- only new to the scientists that make publications and keep records. Aboriginal societies in the remote areas where new species are found likely not only to know about the species but have names for them. Take for example the new monkey species discovered in the African country Tanzania named the highland mangabey (Lophocebus kipunji). The locals were already aware of the monkey, and called it kipunji. In fact, it was through interviewing the local tribes that scientists first learned of its existence. Does this make the discovery any less exciting? Not at all. In fact, the process of sleuthing amongst old-world tribes to obtain clues towards finding new species makes it all the more interesting and exciting.

The island of Borneo in Indonesia is often in the news due to the high numbers of new species discovered there. If you aspire to go into a career discovering new species, this may be a good place to start. There were 52 new species of plant and animal discovered there in 2006, and researchers say many more are yet to be discovered. Many of the new animal species are fish, and there are also new frogs, lizards and even a new species of cat similar to a clouded leopard (see image). If you are interested in discovering new marine species, then the island of New Guinea may be the best place. There have been dozens of new coral, shrimp and fish species discovered in the waters surrounding the Indonesian part of the island in recent years.

Sadly, many of the new species found on Borneo and elsewhere may not be around for long. Not surprisingly, most new species are endemic to the regions they are found, meaning that they are found only in those regions. Unlike Canada where natural ecosystems are effectively protected by government programs and enforcement (yeah, right) the governments of other places in the world do not have the resources to enforce this level of protection. In Borneo, the rainforests are under threat of land clearing for rubber plantations.

There was a discussion on this blog in October about the issue of naming a new species and the traditional right of a biologist making the discovery to do so. Although most discussion members were disgusted that the naming of a species should be carried out by auction, I would like to point out that there can be a positive outcome of auctioning the right to name a new species. If the money raised was put back into the biologist's work to discover or protect a new species, it can be a good thing. It is difficult for biologists to raise funds for research endeavours to find new species, and given the benefit to the species that can be realized by human awareness of their existence, it shouldn’t be such a concern that it is named after some rich guy’s wife. On the other hand, Lophocebus microsoftus or Lophocebus cocacola doesn’t give me a nice feeling.

Image Source:

New species of monkey in Tanzania:

New species in Borneo:

New marine species:

Naming of new species by auction:


Dominic B. said...

Well...if the money goes back to research, to protect, to educate....the name does not matter so much...but leaves a bad taste in my mouth.