Our favourite species discoveries this year

Living with spikes on your back is typically a defensive move. But two newly discovered ant species need their spikes to hold up their enormous heads.

The ants were discovered by Japanese scientists in the tropical rainforests of New Guinea and belong to the ‘big headed ants’ family.

With their large fearsome-looking spikes, it’s no surprise Pheidole viserion and Pheidole drogon were named for the dragons in the television series Game of Thrones.

But the spikes, the researchers write in PLOS One, actually contain muscle fibres that may have evolved to keep their oversized heads in place.

The scientists identified the ants using a 3-D imaging technique called micro-CT, which enabled them to image the ants up close and rotating in a three-dimensional format.

Study co-author Evan Economo from the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology said the study was one of the first in ant taxonomy to use micro-CT, and that the method is gaining traction.

Add advances in gene technology along with intrepid scientists venturing further afield, and new species are being discovered each day. Here are five of our favourites discovered just this year.

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The slender rat (Gracilimus radix).
Credit: Kevin Rowe

Ratted out

Led by an 82-year-old village elder, a team of scientists from Australia, the US and Indonesia walked up a remote mountain on Indonesia’s Sulawesi Island to find the slender rat, Gracilimus radix.

At around 30 centimetres long, including its tail, and weighing around 40 grams, the rat was unlike any other the scientists had seen.

It foraged for roots and insects on the forest floor eating roots and insects, rather than feeding solely on insects like its closest relative, the Sulawesi water rat.

Sulawesi Island is renowned for its biodiversity, and the scientists believe the rat isn’t just a new species but belongs to an entirely new genus.

Their research was published in Journal of Mammalogy in March.

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Large males of Paranaxia serpulifera (left) and the newly identified P. keesingi (right) with representative juveniles.
Credit: Western Australian Museum

Crustacean abberation

True to their name, spider crabs have long spindly legs protruding from their body. And in a study published in the journal Zootaxa in June, a new species of Western Australia spider crab was described.

Andrew Hosie and Ana Hara from the Western Australian Museum noticed differences between the new species with other spider crabs while conducting dredging surveys off the coast of northwest Western Australia.

After searching the specimen collections in the Western Australia Museum and Queensland Museum, they found the new crabs had already been collected, but not named or studied.

The scientists named it Paranaxia keesingi after marine biologist John Keesing in recognition of his commitment to Western Australian biodiversity.

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An illustration of the as-yet unnamed new species of beaked whale.
Credit: Uko Gorter / Natural History Illustration

The whale with no name (yet)

In 2014, a 7.3-metre-long whale washed up on the shore of Alaska’s remote St George Island – and a few days ago scientists proclaimed it an entirely new species.

While it’s not yet officially named, scientists from the US say the enigmatic whale belongs to the genus Berardius, commonly known as ‘giant beaked whales’.

Initially assumed to be a Baird’s beaked whale – one of two whale species in the Berardius family – the new species is physically distinct: it has a smaller body, darker flesh and a larger dorsal fin.

But advances in DNA technology provided the scientists with the most convincing evidence. The work was published this week in the journal Marine Mammal Science.

It has yet to be seen alive by scientists. It has only been seen by Japanese fishermen who call it karasu, meaning raven.

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The Talamancan palm-pitviper (Bothriechis nubestris).
Credit: University of Central Florida

Snakes on a range

This vibrant green and black venomous snake – Talamancan palm-pitviper (Bothriechis nubestris) – was discovered in Costa Rica by a group of scientists from the US and Costa Rica. It was unveiled in the journal Zootaxa in July.

For more than 100 years, the snake was mistaken for its close relative, the black-speckled palm-pitviper. But while the two look almost identical, their genetic make-up is distinctly different.

The rare snake lives in remote locations and at high elevations, making sample collection difficult. So the scientists collaborated with several natural history museums to gather more specimens from 150 years of museum collections and get their genetic evidence.

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The heart-shaped fruits of Coprosma cordicarpa (Rubiaceae).
Credit: Maggie J. Sporck-Koehler

A plant after your heart

These heart-shaped fruits were fittingly discovered on the cusp of Valentine’s Day. But don’t send them as gifts – this plant is already endangered.

Spotted by a botanist visiting the Hawaiian island of Maui, Coprosma cordicarpa is part of the coffee family. Species in this family are typically found on remote islands in the Pacific Ocean.

After a number of herbarium specimen measurements, researchers determined that the fruit was a new species. To make sure it’s preserved, they collected 609 seeds from 32 plants.

The plant was published in Phytokeys.

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