Posts Tagged ‘taxonomy’

Top left: Cebu hawk owl; bottom right: Camiguin hawk owl. Source: Oriental Bird Club; painting by John Gale.

Did you know that the collective noun for owls is a parliament? Odd, because they tend to be solitary or paired. Anyways: a new parliament of seven owl species from the jungles of the Philippines.

A research team, led by Dr. Pamela Rasmussen of Michigan State University, was documenting the songs of the Philippine hawk owl (Ninox philippensis). This species was known to have geographically variable plumage, and previous taxonomists had split it into a number of subspecies. But plumage was not enough to diagnose

Because owls are nocturnal, they rely heavily on vocalizations to tell each other apart. And since they don’t learn these songs—they are in fact thought to be genetically programmed—owls with distinct enough songs probably belong to separate species. But recording owls at night in remote jungles is no easy task, and it took 15 years before the research team could confirm that they were dealing with seven hawk owls instead of just one.

Five of those seven species had previously been considered subspecies of the Philippine hawk owl on the basis of their plumage. But two—the Cebu and Camiguin hawk owls, named for the islands on which they are found—were completely new. It’s quite rare to discover a new vertebrate, and especially a new bird in this age of fanatical birding. But here were two! It’s nice, I think, to know that there are still mysteries out there to be brought to light.

The full article describing all seven species can be found here in PDF form (see page 12 for pictures of all the owls). And you can hear examples of the song recordings analyzed in this study: here’s the Camiguin hawk owl and the Cebu hawk owl.

Reference: Rasmussen PC, Allen DNS, Collar NJ, DeMeulemeester B, Hutchinson RO, Jakosalem PGC, Kennedy RS, Lambert FR, Paguntalan LM. 2012. Vocal divergence and new species in the Philippine Hawk Owl Ninox philippensis complex. Forktail 28:1-20.


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Two news stories that have warmed my heart in the past couple of weeks both involve non-scientists making important scientific discoveries. If you follow any biology blogs, you’ve probably heard about the new species of lacewing that was discovered on Flickr (here’s the paper describing it). Semachrysa jade was photographed by Gueg Hock Ping in Malaysia, and when entomologist Shaun Winterton saw the photo on Flickr, realized it was an undescribed species. Guek captured a specimen—necessary to confirm that the species was new—the following year. Along with Steve Brooks, another entomologist, they published the description in the open-access journal Zookeys. Interestingly, they found a second specimen of S. jade, already in a museum collection—one of perhaps millions of specimens that no one has yet realized represent new taxa.

The second story is a bit more old fashioned but exciting for a Mary Anning fan like me. The Keating family, while walking their dog, stumbled across a spectacular fossil on a rocky Nova Scotia beach. The beast is a juvenile sail-backed mammal-like reptile (maybe something like Dimetrodon) from the Carboniferous period (i.e. pre-dinosaurs). While this discovery is more low-tech than the lacewing from Flickr, what they both have in common is (1) someone with a keen eye getting out in nature and (2) the layperson connecting with scientists who can properly identify and document their find. In one case, a scientist reached out to the photographer, while in the other the family sought out experts when they found the fossil. Anyone could make the next cool biology headline.

So, in the words of Ms. Frizzle, get out there and explore!

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New species and weird scientific name news that has found its way to my browser over the past few months. Enjoy.

Pictures of tropical fish that will BLOW YOUR MIND. New and non-new species.

Potential cryptic species of sharks

Giant extinct turtle

Random Wikipedia browsing reveals that there is at least one species (a spider) named for Cthulhu

More cryptic species, in this case of skinks

The Taxonomic Name Resolution Service – searchable record of plant scientific names, including all documented synonyms – important for those describing new species, as well as for those trying to find historical research on species whose names have changed

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I did this last year and I think maybe I’ll make it a tradition: a year-end linkdump about new species described or discovered in the previous twelve months.

First, the International Institute for Species Exploration comes up with a top ten list of new species for every year. From what I can see, they’ve recently changed from announcing these in April to announcing them at the end of December, so here are links to both 2010’s top species and 2011’s. I particularly like how they strive to include invertebrates and the occasional non-animal (viz. the underwater fungus from 2011) and some details about the significance of each species.

Next a pair of articles about a woman who conducted a thirty-year study of the wildlife in her garden, and discovered several new species in the process (there are discrepancies between these two reports as to the number). More importantly, the study is also a testament to the diversity and resilience of urban wildlife – and of the people who care about it. Apparently a book about the project is now available.

This article basically sums up everything that I should include in this post, so I’ll just be lazy and link to it.

Earlier this year, PLoS Biology published a new estimate of the total number of eukaryotic (non-bacterial) species on earth. The new number, 8.7 million, is lower than many other estimates and was calculated using a novel method. Here’s one of the many popular media articles about these findings which includes some gratuitous pictures of relatively recently described species. The PLoS Biology editorial about this paper is also worth a read. When I get some time (read: when I decide to get off the couch), I might tinker with these new numbers to see how they affect another paper’s estimates of how much it would cost to describe all animal species. Update: this recalculation is already done, buried in the discussion – the grand total is now $364 billion.

Odds and ends: a myriad of new species from the Mekong, with some pretty pictures; many new French Polynesian plants; a new plant genus from Amazonia (I like this article for its perspective on how luck-based species discovery is); some charismatic and weird-looking sharks.

In somewhat related news, botanists no longer have to include a Latin description when they describe a new species. (Scientific names, of course, are still in Latin.) Zoologists abandoned Latin descriptions a while ago. My favourite quote from the article:

It’s premature to talk about the death of Latin. Plant names will still be in Latin, and scientists can still use Latin for the description if they choose, though no one expects that many people will.

I am actually a bit confused about this link because I’ve read plant species descriptions that didn’t include a Latin description, and I vaguely remember checking at some point last year whether it was still a requirement and finding that it was not.

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I haven’t said much about taxonomy or new species in a while, have I? Here is a lovely mini-documentary (about 13 minutes) about the Census of Marine Life, a ten-year project to survey creatures in the world’s oceans that ended last year. It talks about how reserachers actually identify a species as something new to science and how they describe and name it. It also features a researcher spraypainting polychaetes on a wall for some reason.

Here’s some links to more info on the census and some stunning pictures of new species it uncovered – I think I may have linked to these before.

Talking about deep-sea creatures makes me think of this amazing, amazing, amazing animation called “The Deep”. It uses tools and other metallic household objects as organisms from the abyssal depths. What’s really stunning how it captures the motion of fish and other marine life. Even the creatures that aren’t (to my knowledge) based on actual species are amazingly lifelike.

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ResearchBlogging.orgThat’s the price tag, in US dollars, a new study puts on describing all the world’s animal species.


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…why no one thought of this before.

Naming a dinosaur “thunder thighs”, that is. Could it be that the “bronto” stem had been tarnished by the whole “brontosaurus isn’t a valid name” thing?

Anyways, all is well with the universe now.

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