Wild Neighbors: Beetles, Mites, and Other New Faces of 2009

By Joe Eaton
Wednesday December 30, 2009 - 09:39:00 AM

I got an interesting press release from the California Academy of Sciences last week. The gist of it was that the Academy's scientists had described 94 new species during 2009. Although most were from exotic places like Yunnan or Burma, there were a few locals in the mix. 

There’s a formalized process for this kind of thing. Normally, you have to designate a type specimen for the new species, although that’s been relaxed to allow photographs and genetic samples for some rare birds. Your description has to be published in a peer-reviewed journal. Your have to make sure the Latin binomial you assign to your critter is consistent with the relevant international code of nomenclature (separate systems for animals, plants, and fungi; not sure about bacteria.) Botanists have the added burden of composing part of their description in Latin. 

This is the kind of science that the molecular guys have derided as glorified stamp collecting-putting obscure creatures in tiny pigeonholes. Taxonomy isn’t glamorous. But it’s essential to any meaningful kind of conservation effort: to strategize about protecting species, we need to know how many species we’re dealing with. And we’re a long way from cataloguing them all. 

So what new lifeforms did the Academy come up with? Some were marine species, collected off the California coast. These included the black ghostshark (Hydrolagus melanophasma), described as having sexual appendages on its forehead. That could be awkward. (I've never thought of sharks as having foreheads.) 

There were also a couple of grenadier fishes and a coral, the latter named after Monterey Bay Aquarium executive director Julie Packard. 

From the land side, the Academy’s botanists published descriptions of two new mosses found in Yosemite National Park. 

It’s surprising to think of an area as well-known as Yosemite harboring new species. However, a new orchid species was discovered there only a couple of years ago. Mosses can be pretty cryptic, at that. 

There were also four new feather mites. Mites, like many parasites, tend to be host-specific. I haven’t read the descriptions of the newly documented species, but their Latin names suggest what their hosts are.  

It’s likely, for example, that Syringophiloidus sialius lives on bluebirds, and Torotrogla cyanocitta on Steller’s jays.  

Sometimes taxonomists catch a species on its way out. That happened with the po’ouli, a songbird from Maui: first described in 1973, extinct by 2004. A beetle named Nebria praedicta, endemic to a single peak in the Trinity Alps, is also on the fast track to extinction. Nebria beetles are found only in the vicinity of alpine glaciers and snowfields, hiding under rocks by day and foraging on the snow at night. They’ve evolved cold-tolerant enzymes that enable them to function at low temperatures and chemicals that keep their bodies from freezing solid. Their adaptations are so fine-tuned that warmer conditions are fatal. When the ice goes, so will the beetles.  

Academy curator Dave Kavanaugh, the senior author of the N. praedicta description, has been searching the American West for Nebria beetles since 1968, with at least 43 new species to his credit. Revisiting his old sites, he’s found some of the beetles only at higher elevations than previously, driven up- 

slope by climate change. The praedicta part of the name of the newest discovery suggests that Kavanaugh expected to find a new beetle species on that peak in the Trinities.  

There are precedents: Darwin deduced the existence of a long-tongued Madagascar hawkmoth from the long nectar tube of the orchid Angraecum sesquipedale. When the moth eventually turned up, it was named Xanthopan morgani praedicta. 

Bit by bit, the catalogue of lifeforms grows: a moss, a beetle, a mite at a time. There have been periodic campaigns for a grand global taxonomy blitz, driven by an increasing sense of urgency about species loss. To date, though, the process remains incremental. Ninety-four down, a few million more to go.