Every year, scientists, researchers and amateur naturalists discover 15,000 new species — on average — and we learn a little more about the wonderful planet we call home.
From walking sharks to giant flying squirrels, these are some of the best new species discovered in 2013.
1) Bassaricyon neblina: Olinguito, the carnivorous raccoon of the Andes
The olinguito had been mistakenly identified for more than 100 years. (Mark Gurney/Getty Images)
The clear winner this year is the olinguito, a member of the raccoon family that lives in the cloud forests of Ecuador and Colombia. It's been 35 years since a carnivorous mammal was discovered in the Americas, which makes the olinguito a fairly big deal. There were almost two dozen olinguito samples in the United States, most collected in the early 20th century, but they were mislabeled. One olinguito even lived in an American zoo in the 1960s, lying low and refusing to mate with the red raccoons it lived with.
2) Tometes camunani: the vegetarian piranha of the Amazon
(Tommaso Giarrizzo/World Wildlife Fund)
Sure, piranhas can eat a pig in 30 seconds, or something like that. Not this piranha. One of more than 440 new species discovered this year in the Amazon, this fish is a strict herbivore. It lives in rocky rapids and eats river weeds. Environmental threats from damning and mining projects suggest we might not have this peaceful little creature for much longer.
3) Siats meekerorum: the top predatory dinosaur before T-Rex
Sue, a 67-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus Rex, on display at the Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Scientists have long wondered: who was the dinosaur boss before Tyrannosaurus Rex came to dominate the scene? Turns out it was the Siats meekerorum, a large predatory species that lead the way for several million years during the Cretaceous period, between 100 million and 66 million years ago. The juvenile specimen found in Utah's Cedar Mountain Formation would have weighed 4 tons and measured 30 feet in length. Adults were likely 6 tons and 40 feet. Its decline saw the rise of the T-Rex, which, during Siat's reign, had only evolved enough to be a "nuisance to Siats, like jackals at a lion kill," according to Lindsay Zanno, the paleontologist who described the find.
4) Orthotomus chaktomuk: the Cambodian tailorbird that's living the city life in Phnom Penh
Nobody went trekking into the Amazon to find this little birdy. It's rare that scientists and researchers find new species in cities, but the Cambodian tailorbird was found living at the edges of Phnom Penh. First spotted in 2009, during screenings for avian flew, the species was described this year in the journal for the Oriental Bird Club. One club member, Richard Thomas, reported, "I went and saw this remarkable new tailorbird myself — in the middle of a road construction site."
5) Zospeum tholussum: the Croatian snail with a transparent shell
(J. Bedeck/Wikimedia Commons)
The snail shown here is the first and only one of its species yet discovered alive. It was living in the Lukina Jama–Trojama, Croatia's deepest cave system, when researchers at the Goethe-University in Frankfurt, Germany found it in a chamber 3,215 feet down. It was living a muddy existence among some rocks, sand, and a small stream.
6) Saltuarius eximius: the leaf-tailed gecko of Australia
(Conrad Hoskin/Wikimedia Commons)
The Cape Meilville leaf-tailed gecko is rocking some serious camouflage. It joins six other species in the genus, all of them located in Australia between northern New South Wales and the Wet Tropics of Queensland. “Six individuals have been found," said the scientists who discovered the species, "all in close proximity in an area of granite boulders covered by a rainforest canopy.”
7) Coendou baturitensis: the mountain porcupine of Brazil
Credit: Hugo Fernandes-Ferreira.
This prickly guy, found in the Baturite Range of Brazil, is a new addition to the Coendou genus of prehensile-tailed porcupines of Central and South America. They are solitary herbivores that use their tails to grasp things (like spider monkeys and opossums). Among the features that distinguish this species from its genus-mates are its dark appearance, wide snout, and big, soft nose.
8) Biswamoyopterus laoensis: the giant flying squirrel of Laos.
Underside view of the newly discovered Laotian giant flying squirrel. (Sanamxay, Daosavanh; et al. Zootaxa 3686 (4): 471–481)
The Laotian flying squirrel was discovered in a weird place: on sale at a bush meat market. It is the only known specimen of the new species and lives up to its name. It's 3.5 feet long and nearly 4 pounds. The only specimen of its closest relative, the Biswamoyopterus biswasi, was found in northwestern India in 1981.
9) Arapaima leptosoma: the giant air-breathing fish of the Amazon
(George Chernilevsky/Wikimedia Commons)
Arapaimas are fresh-water dwellers of South America that can grow to 10 feet and 440 pounds. They have a primitive lung that allows them to breath air, and they've been a valuable food source for Amazonian peoples. The first Arapaima species was described in 1847, and since then, scientists have assumed that it was the only one of its kind. Not so. Donald Stewart, a fish biologist at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, proved there are at least five extant species of Arapaimas. Arapaima leptosoma is distinguished by its slender build and by the horizontal black bar on the side of its head. Two Arapaimas at a Ukrainian aquarium turned out to be leptosomas.
10) The legless lizards of California
Credit: Alex Krohn
Researchers in California are on the trail of legless lizards and found four new ones this year. They look like snakes, but don't be fooled. These lizards ditched their legs several million years ago to make it easy to dig and burrow. Most live underground and never leave an area of just a few square feet. There are more than 200 legless lizard species worldwide, but that doesn't make these new guys any less cool, especially since they were found in some unlikely spots: an empty lot in downtown Bakersfield, among oil derricks in San Joaquin Valley, at the edge of the Mojave desert, and near a runway at LAX.
11) Hemiscyllium halmahera: the walking shark of Indonesia
This shark couldn't care less about swimming. It moves along the ocean floor using its pectoral and pelvic fins as feet. Researchers caught two specimens off the Maluku Islands in Indonesia. They are only two feet long, so don't panic. They're just walking around looking for crustaceans.
12) Leopardus guttulus: the little Brazilian wild cat
(Tambako the Jaguar/Flickr)
We began with cute and we'll end with cute. Check out this little leopard. It's no bigger than a house-cat and is fiercely adorable. The photo above shows the Leopardus tigrinus (known as Oncilla or Tigrillo). Scientists have long assumed that two populations of wild cats in northeastern and southern Brazil were members of a single species. Turns out that's not true. They look nearly identical, but DNA tests confirmed that the two populations were genetically distinct with no evidence of interbreeding. Habitat seems to have played a key role in their evolution. Tigrillos live in savannah regions, while the Leopardus gutullus live in wet Atlantic forests. Different species, but still members of the same cute genus.