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New to Science: Biodiversity Discovery at the NC Museum

December 20, 2012

Every once in a while, a news story will hit the popular media citing fantastic new species of animals or plants discovered by scientists on expeditions to far-away places like the heart of Borneo, deep in Amazon rainforests, or in the trenches of tropical oceans.  These stories capture our imagination, our sense of adventure…what crazy new species lurk out there, awaiting discovery?  How much more ‘life’ exists in our world, undetected and unknown?  Who are these “Indiana Jones-like” scientists, crawling through the darkest jungles and discovering our world’s mysterious creatures?

You might be surprised to learn that, while these stories are fun (and important!), they don’t necessarily represent the ‘typical’ process of how new species are discovered.  You might also be surprised to learn that there are undiscovered, ‘new’ species everywhere…even right here in North Carolina!  Finally, you might be surprised to learn that the scientists who do this work of biodiversity discovery are (in most cases) everyday people, just like you and me.

Allow me to explain…

“Systematics” is a subdiscipline of the biological sciences that includes the formal scientific description and classification of organisms (taxonomy) and the study of how organisms evolved, diversified, and how they are related (phylogenetics).  Considered a “basic” or “pure” science (as opposed to the “applied” sciences), the information produced in systematics research projects lays the biological groundwork in any given scientific arena, contributing baseline – but critical – biodiversity information that informs other research.  What kind of information?  We’re talking about physical/anatomical information, genetic data, geographical distribution, behavior, ecological information, and life history data.

The field of systematics has come a long way since the days-of-old, with technological advances in microscopy and digital imaging, DNA sequencing and bioinformatics (genomics methods), and geographic information systems (or GIS, integrating GPS hardware and software to map and analyze geographic information) that allow the modern systematist to more accurately and thoroughly investigate life than ever before.

Some of the coolest, and most satisfying, aspects of systematics research are biodiversity exploration and the discovery of ‘new’ species.  There are plenty of organisms, whether currently living or extinct, yet to be formally described in the scientific literature.  Colloquially, we call these “new species”….but really they should be termed “species new to science”, since these are organisms that have been around for hundreds of thousands of years, or longer, but have not yet been ‘discovered’ by mankind.  How many species does this Earth have?  How many are still out there, unknown?  Good questions!  While nobody really knows, this is a topic of great debate in the biodiversity research community.  As of 2011, there were almost 2 million known species (that is, formally described in the scientific sense), and although estimates vary widely, it’s not unreasonable to expect that an additional 10 million animal and plant species await discovery….and that doesn’t include the microbial species!  Suffice to say that there is more undescribed life out there in the world than what we know….

Biodiversity discovery is a common theme in many of the ongoing research projects of the NC Museum of Natural Sciences.  Museum researchers are describing ‘species new to science’ in many different organismal groups…including both living (extant) and dead (extinct) things.  From this year, alone, scientific publications from NC Museum researchers include scientific descriptions of:  a new allosauroid dinosaur from Utah (Zanno & Makovicky, 2012); a new family of late Eocene coleoid cephalopods (‘squishy’ things related to octopuses and squids) from Mississippi (Doguzhaeva et al., 2012); a freshwater mussel from the Late Triassic rift lakes of eastern North Carolina (Bogan & Weaver, 2012); a new frog species from Laos (Stuart et al., 2012); two new mite species from Ethiopia (Ermilov et al., 2012); and nine new – and, dare I say, awesome – species of spittlebugs from the Neotropics (Paladini & Cryan, 2012)!

Zuata tigrina

Zuata tigrina…only one of the coolest spittlebugs around, and recently described as a ‘new’ species by a NC Museum scientist and his colleague!

And ongoing systematics research projects at the Museum will soon result in published descriptions of new dinosaurs, reptiles and amphibians, fish, and various invertebrates (including more – dare I say, awesome – new spittlebugs).

How does a researcher discover new species, you ask?  Good question!  Well, there’s really more than one answer.  Sometimes, like in the adventure stories I started this whole thing off with, new species are discovered when a researcher is actually out in the world, conducting fieldwork and collecting specimens.  Yes, that does happen…and those special moments of discovery in the field can be REALLY exciting for systematists.  More often than not, though, new species are discovered when researchers study specimens in existing natural sciences collections….discovering unknown species in Museum cabinets, on shelves, or in drawers is quite common.  In fact, a recently published – and very interesting – study (Fontaine et al., 2012) reported that the average time-lapse between the ‘collection’ of a new species and the actual publication of its description is almost 21 years!  It’s a well-known fact in science that Museum collections are treasure-troves of biodiversity…preserving ‘snapshots’ of the Earth’s species for future research.

Smerdalea circumflexa

Smerdalea circumflexa (illustration plate from Cryan & Deitz, 1995)…described from 3 individuals found in an existing specimen collection.

I had a bit of a “eureka” moment a few years back, relevant to this discussion.  As a young Entomology graduate student at NC State University, my first-ever scientific publication (Cryan & Deitz, 1995) included formal descriptions of two ‘new’ species of über-cool Neotropical treehoppers in the genus Smerdalea (the name is derived from the Greek word for ‘terrible’, likely referring to the fact that these totally harmless treehoppers are spiky little critters that look like they could do some serious damage!).  I had found preserved specimens of these ‘new’ species in existing collections and had recognized them as being different from the only described species of that treehopper genus.  I found three specimens of one of these new species, which I named Smerdalea circumflexa; those specimens had been collected in Ecuador in 1987 and1988 and had been sitting, undetected as new, in a Museum drawer ever since (if you’re keeping track, that means a 7-8 year time-lapse between collection and scientific description for this particular species….not too shabby!).

Getting ready to board a long-boat for a 10-hour trek up the Tambopata River in southern Peru's rainforests.

Getting ready to board a long-boat for a 10-hour trek up the Tambopata River in southern Peru’s rainforests.

Well… years later (in 2004), I was on an expedition to explore the insect biodiversity in the rainforests of the Tambopata region of southern Peru.  My research team had trekked, by long-boat, up the Tambopata River for about ten hours from the nearest settlement to work at an extremely remote biological station called the Tambopata Research Center.

I mean, we were OUT there.  ‘End-of-the-Earth’ kind of place.  It was awesome.

One night, while collecting insects at our special, mercury-vapor light trap, I captured a spiky little treehopper that was, amazingly, that very same species I had described in 1995…Smerdalea circumflexa!  Like a proud father, I recognized my baby right away….only the 4th specimen known of this species, and I got to see it living.

Peru TRC

The Tambopata Research Center: go to the end of the Earth, take a right, and keep going ’till you get there. I’d go back in a heartbeat….

In this unusual ‘circle’ of discovery, I had gone from examining specimen collections in a quiet academic office in Raleigh (NC) to, a decade later, exploring the deepest jungles of South America and – purely by chance – found the same species.

MAN-ALIVE, what a great moment!

Peru MVlight2

The mercury-vapor light trap we set-up at the Tambopata Research Center….it was a dark and stormy night….

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