As the year draws to a close, lists and “best of 2016” articles are being written for everything from world leaders to television shows to hamburgers. In the midst of all of the other headlines in 2016, new species were being discovered all over world. Here is a curated list of my five favorite creatures that were first reported in 2016.
1. Flightless scaly-tailed squirrel (Zenkerella insignis)
This small mammal makes the list for essentially being rediscovered, after only being known to science via fossils and a handful of aging specimens. Previously, no one knew if living flightless scaly-tailed squirrels still walked the earth at all.
Zenkerella insignis began roaming the landscapes and islands of what is now western Africa around 50 million years ago — just 15 million years after dinosaurs went extinct. This scaly-tailed squirrel provides a peek into the past, as the species has changed very little since then. It is one of only six extant (living) mammal species to boast such a long tenure on our planet.
Zenkerella insignis‘s rediscovery also serves as a lesson about the value of maintaining museum collections and supporting research expeditions that focus on exploration and discovery. Dr. David Hernandez, a lecturer at the University of West England, came across a Z. insignis specimen that had been languishing in a museum collection for some time, and texted a picture of it to his colleague Dr. Erik Seifert, at the University of Southern California. That text message eventually inspired a new field expedition to search for a surviving population on Bioko Island, off the coast of Equatorial Guinea. Thus, while this is anything but a “new” species, the expedition’s discovery of an island population of “living fossils” was a new and noteworthy revelation.
2. New species of basslet named in honor of President Obama (Tosanoides obama)
While this small tropical fish doesn’t have an official common name yet, its Latin name has made it an immediate celebrity: Tosanoides obama was named in honor of U.S. President Barack Obama, in honor of his contributions to marine conservation. This basslet was discovered in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (PMNM), surrounding the far northwest Hawaiian islands. When Obama expanded PMNM in August 2016, he made it the largest protected wildlife reserve in the world–marine or terrestrial– covering 582,578 square miles (1,508,870 square km). That is approximately twice the size of Texas.
In addition to T. obama, PMNM is home to around 7,000 species, including endangered sea turtles and marine mammals. With the expansion of the park, we can look forward to a wealth of new research from that part of the Pacific.
3. Ruby seadragon (Phyllopteryx dewysea)
Here there be dragons. The list of known sea dragon species increased by 50% this year, with the discovery of only the third species known to science. The ruby sea dragon (Phyllopteryx dewysea), found off the coast of Western Australia, is the first new sea dragon species to be described in over 150 years.
What is a sea dragon, anyway? It is a highly derived fish, and is closely related to the sea horses. They are not strong swimmers, and tend to “go with the flow,” gliding along in the ocean waves. Phyllopteryx dewysea is a deeper red color than the other two known species of sea dragon, leading researchers to believe that it may spend its time deeper in the ocean waters than its relatives. Red wavelengths of light are absorbed underwater, making red a better and better camouflage the deeper one dives. This preference for deeper waters could also explain why the species hadn’t been discovered until this year.
4. Peacock spider (Maratus spp.)
Peacock spiders are gorgeous and entertaining little arachnids. This year not one but seven new peacock spider species were described, all in the genus Maratus. These jumping spiders are known for the bright, iridescent patterns that adorn the males. As with peacocks, males use these colorful features as part of elaborate courtship displays, and females are drab in comparison.
My personal favorite from the Peacock Spider Class of 2016 is M. bubo: “Bubo” is genus name for horned owls and eagle-owls, in honor of the colorful pattern on this spider that looks like a tiny owl portrait.
5. Ghost octopus (Latin name TBD)
In February of 2016, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) unveiled a surprise character from deep-sea rover footage: a round, pale little octopus that was previously unknown to science. Living at a depth of over 4,000 meters (13,123 feet, or about 2.5 miles), this creature is thought to be not only a new species, but an entirely new genus.
And it’s cute: this cephalopod charmed the world, becoming an internet sensation overnight, frequently being compared to Casper the friendly ghost.
The “ghostopus” is so unique that more analysis must be done before it can be officially described and named. Meanwhile, more exploration of the sea floor around the Hawaiian islands may turn up more individuals, and even more species not yet known to science.