‘By discovering nature, you discover yourself’. While that quote may sound a little corny, there is an element of truth to it. Us humans like to think that we know everything, but we haven’t even discovered everything on our own planet yet.
2020 saw us find 503 new animal species, according to the Natural History Museum and, with each new discovery, we find out something new about the world in which we live, and our own role inside it. Here are six of the most interesting finds.
Monkeys often pop up in surprising places, but maybe the side of a volcano is unusual even for them. The Popa langur (Trachypithecus popa), named after the Myanmar peak it was found on, wasn’t easy to identify at first. They had to analyse the creature’s fur, bones and skin to determine whether it differed from the more common Phayre’s langur that you can find in many parts of south-east Asia. Researchers were even able to match it to a skin that had been on display at the Natural History museum for over a century.
There was bad news, however. The Popa monkey immediately qualified for ‘critically endangered’ status with only 200-260 left in the wild. Its finders hope that by shining a light on its existence will help to protect it in the future – from humans more so than volcanos.
A luminous snake
Sometimes we stumble across an amazing find when we least expect it. While a glowing snake sounds like something you might see in a slots game or a sci-fi movie, scientists analysing Northern Vietnam’s dense forests were shocked to see one slither past them in the road in mid-2019.
It turned out to be an undiscovered serpent species, part of the rare Achilanus genus, whose eyes had evolved with no photoreceptors, meaning it spends most its time burrowed underground.
It was named Achalinus Zugorum, after Smithsonian’s reptile curator George Zug and his wife Patricia, and experts hope it can give us more clues about this elusive type of snake.
Not something you’d want to come across on your mountain hike, the ‘devil-eyed frog’ is black in colour with vivid red eyes that seem to leap out of their sockets.
This fiendish-looking creature can be found in the Bolivian stretch of the Andes and was rediscovered by scientists after an extensive hunt — ‘rediscovered’ because it was thought to be extinct for 20 years after a hydroelectric dam was built in the frog’s natural habitat.
Not thought to be dangerous, the creature might still give you a zap of fear should you come across it, which might explain how it’s survived.
It also serves as a good animal news story following human-inflicted trauma, and scientist hope that other species follow in its footsteps (or jumps).
Ever tried breathing through your skin? OK, that’s a weird question for us humans, but for the newly discovered lungless worm salamander it’s just another day at the office.
The amphibians protect themselves by burrowing deep under lush rainforest soil and absorbing the oxygen and water while down there. They’re very elusive creatures, which makes research difficult, but researchers are determined to find out as much as they can about the lungless wonder.
To compensate for its elusiveness, the team did also discover another worm salamander while on the hunt. This one, also native to South America, has taught us that these salamanders can be found much further south than previously thought possible.
Greater gliders are one of an amazing collection of animals that surprise us in how they fly through the air. The creature’s light frame and strong limbs means it can propel itself great distances relative to its size.
Until 2020, scientists though there was only one species of glider in East Australia’s rainforest, but DNA sequencing revealed that there were, in fact, three types, which are listed as Petauroides volans, Petauroides minor and Petauroides armillatus for all you Latin fans out there.
The possum-like animals survive by eating eucalyptus leaves on treetops – maybe that’s the secret ingredient in their ability to fly.
Perhaps one of the most bizarre discoveries of recent times arrived in the form of the ‘armoured slug’; a shelled mollusc that resides in the rocky terrain of Utah. It’s been there for some time, too, dating back to the Cambrian period around 500 million years ago. How it has escaped classification for so long is a mystery, but its close relationship to another invertebrate called the halkieriid might explain the confusion.
Scientists are also unsure how it evolved its strange features, such as a U-shaped digestive tract that doesn’t appear to serve any purpose. Its tough armoured shell is easier to explain – you don’t survive half a billion years without some kind of protection, after all.
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