Episode 262: Animals Discovered in 2021

It’s the second annual discoveries episode! Lots of animals new to science were described in 2021 so let’s find out about some of them.

Further reading:

First description of a new octopus species without using a scalpel

Marine Biologists Discover New Species of Octopus

Bleating or screaming? Two new, very loud, frog species described in eastern Australia

Meet the freaky fanged frog from the Philippines

New alpine moth solves a 180-year-old mystery

Meet the latest member of Hokie Nation, a newly discovered millipede that lives at Virginia Tech

Fourteen new species of shrew found on Indonesian island

New beautiful, dragon-like species of lizard discovered in the Tropical Andes

Newly discovered whale species—introducing Ramari’s beaked whale (Mesoplodon eueu)!

Scientists describe a new Himalayan snake species found via Instagram

The emperor dumbo octopus (deceased):

The star octopus:

New frog just dropped (that’s actually the robust bleating tree frog, already known):

The slender bleating tree frog:

The screaming tree frog:

The Mindoro fanged frog:

Some frogs do have lil bitty fangs:

The hidden Alpine moth, mystery solver:

The Hokie twisted-claw millipede:

One of 14 new species of shrew:

The snake picture that led to a discovery:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This episode marks our 5th year anniversary! I also finally got the ebook download codes sent to everyone who backed the Kickstarter at that level. The paperback and hardback books will hopefully be ready for me to order by the end of February and I can get them mailed out to backers as soon as humanly possible. Then I’ll focus on the audiobook! A few Kickstarter backers still haven’t responded to the survey, either with their mailing address for a physical book or for names and birthdays for the birthday shout-outs, so if that’s you, please get that information to me!

Anyway, happy birthday to Strange Animals Podcast and let’s learn about some animals new to science in 2021!

It’s easy to think that with all the animals already known, and all the people in the world, surely there aren’t very many new animals that haven’t been discovered yet. But the world is a really big place and parts of it, especially the oceans, have hardly been explored by scientists.

It can be confusing to talk about when an animal was discovered because there are multiple parts to a scientific discovery. The first part is actually finding an animal that the field scientists think might be new to science. Then they have to study the animal and compare it to known animals to determine whether it can be considered a new species or subspecies. Then they ultimately need to publish an official scientific description and give the new animal a scientific name. This process often takes years.

That’s what happened with the emperor dumbo octopus, which was first discovered in 2016. Only one individual was captured by a deep-sea rover and unfortunately it didn’t survive being brought to the surface. Instead of dissecting the body to study the internal organs, because it’s so rare, the research team decided to make a detailed 3D scan of the octopus’s body instead and see if that gave them enough information.

They approached a German medical center that specializes in brain and neurological issues, who agreed to make a scan of the octopus. It turned out that the scan was so detailed and clear that it actually worked better than dissection, plus it was non-invasive so the preserved octopus body is still intact and can be studied by other scientists. Not only that, the scan is available online for other scientists to study without them having to travel to Germany.

The emperor dumbo octopus grows around a foot long, or 30 cm, and has large fins on the sides of its mantle that look like elephant ears. There are 45 species of dumbo octopus known and obviously, more are still being discovered. They’re all deep-sea octopuses. This one was found near the sea floor almost 2.5 miles below the surface, or 4,000 meters. It was described in April of 2021 as Grimpoteuthis imperator.

Oh, and here’s a small correction from the octopus episode from a few years ago. When I was talking about different ways of pluralizing the word octopus, I mispronounced the word octopodes. It’s oc-TOP-uh-deez, not oc-tuh-podes.

Another octopus discovered in 2021 is called the star octopus that has a mantle length up to 7 inches long, or 18 cm. It lives off the southwestern coast of Australia in shallow water and is very common. It’s even caught by a local sustainable fishery. The problem is that it looks very similar to another common octopus, the gloomy octopus. The main difference is that the gloomy octopus is mostly gray or brown with rusty-red on its arms, while the star octopus is more of a yellowy-brown in color. Since individual octopuses show a lot of variation in coloration and pattern, no one noticed the difference until a recent genetic study of gloomy octopuses. The star octopus was described in November 2021 as Octopus djinda, where “djinda” is the word for star in the Nyoongar language of the area.

A study of the bleating tree frog in eastern Australia also led to a new discovery. The bleating tree frog is an incredibly loud little frog, but an analysis of sound recordings revealed that not all the calls were from the same type of frog. In fact, in addition to the bleating tree frog, there are two other really loud frog species in the same area. They look very similar but genetically they’re separate species. The two new species were described in November 2021 as the screaming tree frog and the slender bleating tree frog.

This is what the slender bleating tree frog sounds like:

[frog call]

This is what the screaming tree frog sounds like:

[another frog call]

Another newly discovered frog hiding in plain sight is the Mindoro fanged frog, found on Mindoro Island in the Philippines. It looks identical to the Acanth’s fanged frog on another island but its mating call is slightly different. That prompted scientists to use both acoustic tests of its calls and genetic tests of both frogs to determine that they are indeed separate species.

Lots of insects were discovered last year too. One of those, the hidden alpine moth, ended up solving a 180-year-old scientific mystery that no one even realized was a mystery.

The moth was actually discovered in the 1990s by researchers who were pretty sure it was a new species. It’s a diurnal moth, meaning it’s active during the day, and it lives throughout parts of the Alps. Its wingspan is up to 16mm and it’s mostly brown and silver.

Before they could describe it as a new species and give it a scientific name, the scientists had to make absolutely sure it hadn’t already been named. There are around 5,000 species of moth known to science that live in the Alps, many of them rare. The researchers narrowed it down finally to six little-known species, any one of which might turn out to be the same moth as the one they’d found.

Then they had to find specimens of those six species collected by earlier scientists, which meant hunting through the collections of different museums throughout Europe. Museums never have all their items on display at any given time. There’s always a lot of stuff in storage waiting for further study, and the larger a museum, the more stuff in storage it has. Finding one specific little moth can be difficult.

Finally, though, the scientists got all six of the other moth species together. When they sat down to examine and compare them to their new moth, they got a real surprise.

All six moths were actually the same species of moth, Dichrorampha alpestrana, described in 1843. They’d all been misidentified as new species and given new names over the last century and a half. But the new moth was different and at long last, in July 2021, it was named Dichrorampha velata. And those other six species were stricken from the record! Denied!

You don’t necessarily need to travel to remote places to find an animal new to science. A professor of taxonomy at Virginia Tech, a college in the eastern United States, turned over a rock by the campus’s duck pond and discovered a new species of millipede. It’s about three quarters of an inch long, or 2 cm, and is mostly a dark maroon in color. It’s called the Hokie twisted-claw millipede.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world on the island of Sulawesi, a team of scientists discovered FOURTEEN different species of shrew, all described in one paper at the end of December 2021. Fourteen! It’s the largest number of new mammals described at the same time since 1931. The inventory of shrews living on Sulawesi took about a decade so it’s not like they found them all at once, but it was still confusing trying to figure out what animal belonged to a known species and what animal might belong to a new species. Sulawesi already had 7 known species of shrew and now it has 21 in all.

Shrews are small mammals that mostly eat insects and are most closely related to moles and hedgehogs. Once you add the 14 new species, there are 461 known species of shrew living in the world, and odds are good there are more just waiting to be discovered. Probably not on Sulawesi, though. I think they got them all this time.

In South America, researchers in central Peru found a new species of wood lizard that they were finally able to describe in September 2021 after extensive field studies. It’s called the Feiruz wood lizard and it lives in the tropical Andes in forested areas near the Huallaga River. It’s related to iguanas and has a spiny crest down its neck and the upper part of its back. The females are usually a soft brown or green but males are brighter and vary in color from green to orangey-brown to gray, and males also have spots on their sides.

The Feiruz wood lizard’s habitat is fragmented and increasingly threatened by development, although some of the lizards do live in a national park. Researchers have also found a lot of other animals and plants new to science in the area, so hopefully it can be protected soon.

So far, all the animals we’ve talked about have been small. What about big animals? Well, in October 2021 a new whale was described. Is that big enough for you? It’s not even the same new whale we talked about in last year’s discoveries episode.

The new whale is called Mesoplodon eueu, or Ramari’s beaked whale. It’s been known about for a while but scientists thought it was a population of True’s beaked whale that lives in the Indian Ocean instead of the Atlantic.

When a dead whale washed ashore on the South Island of New Zealand in 2011, it was initially identified as a True’s beaked whale. A Mātauranga Māori whale expert named Ramari Stewart wasn’t so sure, though. She thought it looked different than a True’s beaked whale. She got together with marine biologist Emma Carroll to study the whale and compare it to True’s beaked whale, which took a while since we don’t actually know very much about True’s beaked whale either.

The end result, though, is that the new whale is indeed a new species. It grows around 18 feet long, or 5.5 meters, and probably lives in the open ocean where it dives deeply to find food.

We could go on and on because so many animals were discovered last year, but let’s finish with a fun one from India. In June of 2020, a graduate student named Virender Bhardwaj was stuck at home during lockdowns. He was able to go on walks, so he took pictures of interesting things he saw and posted them online. One day he posted a picture of a common local snake called the kukri snake.

A herpetologist at India’s National Centre for Biological Sciences noticed the picture and immediately suspected it wasn’t a known species of kukri snake. He contacted Bhardwaj to see where he’d found the snake, and by the end of the month Bhardwaj had managed to catch two of them. Genetic analysis was delayed because of the lockdowns, but they described it in December of 2021 as the Churah Valley kukri snake.

The new snake is stripey and grows over a foot long, or 30 cm. It probably mostly eats eggs.

It just goes to show, no matter where you live, you might be the one to find a new species of animal. Learn all you can about your local animals so that if you see one that doesn’t quite match what you expect, you can take pictures and contact an expert. Maybe next year I’ll be talking about your discovery.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 108: Strange Things Found in Amber

Thanks to Nicholas for suggesting this week’s episode topic! Lots of strange and fascinating insects and other animals are found trapped in amber. So what is amber, how does it preserve animal parts, and most importantly, what have scientists found in amber?

A millipede preserved in amber, one of 450 millipedes discovered in Myanmar amber. Somebody had to count them:

A newly described insect that got its own order because it’s so weird. Look at that triangular head with giant eyeballs!

A mushroom, a hair, and a tiny phasmid exoskeleton, all caught in amber:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

Last month I released an episode about trace fossils, and listener Nicholas wrote me to suggest I also do an episode about amber—specifically, the animals and other items that were trapped in amber and preserved inside it when the amber fossilized. Nicholas also sent me lots of links to really interesting articles!

Amber is the term for fossilized tree resin. If you’ve ever climbed a pine tree and ended up with pine sap all over your hands, which is impossible to get off by just washing your hands and is super sticky and picks up every bit of dirt, you’ll have an idea of what amber starts out as and why it sometimes has insects and other stuff in it. Despite the name pine sap, it’s not actually sap. Sap is the fluid that carries nutrients around to a plant’s cells, sort of like plant blood. Resin is secreted by certain trees and other plants for various reasons, including to protect it from insect damage, to kill fungus, to seal off a broken branch or other injury, and to taste bad so herbivores won’t eat it.

There are different types of amber, because there are different plants that produce resin. We don’t always know what species of plant a particular type of amber comes from, since many are now extinct and can’t be directly studied. Conifer trees evolved around 300 million years ago but became really successful during the Mesozoic around 250 million years ago, spreading throughout the world and dripping resin all over the place. Conifers include pine trees, fir trees, hemlocks, yews, larches, junipers, cedars, redwoods, spruces, and lots of other trees and shrubs that are still widespread today. Some flowering plants, mostly trees, also produce resins. But before conifers evolved and outcompeted them, plants called medullosales lived around the world and produced resin too. Medullosales first appear in the fossil record around 360 million years ago and mostly died out around 298 million years ago. They’re all extinct now.

If your name is Amber, by the way, you are named for fossilized tree resin. That sounds gross, but amber has been prized for millennia as a gemstone. When polished, it can be a gorgeous yellow, gold, or brown, often the color of honey. But some amber is other colors, including red, blue, or green. It all depends on what tree originally produced the resin, its chemical makeup, and how it was fossilized.

So how does the resin fossilize? Sometimes it would drip onto the ground, become buried, and fossilize along with the ground around it. Sometimes the resin-producing tree would fall, become buried, and the resin inside would fossilize along with the wood. Sometimes the resin would drip into water, float to a quiet area or sink to the bottom of the pool or lagoon, and fossilize along with the sand and other sediment that covered it. This is why so much amber is found in the ocean, by the way. Once fossilized, amber floats in salt water—just barely, but enough that on some beaches it’s commonly washed up with the tide. People collect the pieces of amber to polish and sell. Amber can also be burned and often gives off a musky, piney scent that has been used in religious ceremonies.

The reason we’re talking about fossilized plant material in an animal podcast is that amber sometimes has insects or other small animals or animal parts inside it. This happened when it was still resin, which is really sticky. If an ant or bee was in the wrong place at the wrong time, it could be covered with resin and die. Then, if that particular dollop of resin ended up getting protected by sediment at just the right time, instead of weathering away and decaying it might fossilize over millions of years with the ant or bee or whatever inside it. And because the ant or bee was protected from air, water, and bacteria by the resin, and kept in place, the things found in amber are usually mostly intact and include parts of the body that ordinarily never fossilize. It may even help preserve DNA, which ordinarily decays after a matter of thousands of years, although there’s still conflicting evidence about whether this is the case. All this helps researchers study animals that went extinct millions of years ago almost as though those animals were still around.

Substances inside amber are called inclusions, whether they’re something exciting like a spider or just a piece of dirt. Well preserved inclusions, especially pretty ones like flowers, can make the piece of amber extremely valuable. If you want to buy polished amber with an inclusion, though, keep in mind that there are a lot of fakes out there. Make sure to have an expert examine an expensive piece before you spend money on it.

So let’s learn about some insects and other things that have been discovered in amber. I’m going to mention Myanmar repeatedly because it’s a big amber-producing region and the subject of an intensive ongoing study of animals found in the amber. Myanmar is in southeast Asia and was once called Burma.

The oldest organism found in amber are two tiny mites and a fly dated to 230 million years ago. The amber in question is very small, droplets no more than about six millimeters across, found in the Italian Alps. The mites are two different species, both new to science although they have living relations that resemble the ancient mites closely. Both of them ate plants. The fly isn’t as well preserved so researchers aren’t sure what species it was.

A 3 millimeter beetle found in amber dated to 99 million years ago was found in Myanmar. It’s an ancient relative of the modern flat rove beetle that lives under tree bark. But the flat rove beetle lives in South America, with one species from southwestern North America. Comparing the modern beetles with their ancestor gives researchers a closer idea of when the supercontinent Gondwana started to split apart into smaller continents as the landmasses moved slowly across the Earth to their current positions.

The amber found in Myanmar has yielded a lot of interesting information during recent studies. For instance, 450 millipedes! Not all in one piece, of course. The research team used a new type of analysis called micro-CT, which scans the inclusion and creates a highly detailed 3D image which can then be studied without damaging or even touching the amber. This is helpful when the amber pieces are privately owned and only on loan to scientists. Some of the millipede specimens were newly hatched, some fully grown, and include many species new to science.

Another insect found in Myanmar amber dated to 99 million years ago is so unusual that researchers placed it in its own order. To illustrate how rare this is, there are over a million insects described by scientists but they all fit into 31 orders. But now there’s 32 orders. The insect had a triangular head with big bulging eyes, a long flat body, long legs, and no wings. It also had glands on its neck that secreted chemicals that probably helped repel predators. Because of its large eyes and the unusual head shape, it could see almost all the way around it without turning its head. Two specimens of the extinct insect have been found in amber. One of the researchers who described the insect, amber expert and entomologist George Poinar, Jr, said that he thought it looked like an alien’s head so he made a Halloween mask that looked like it. As you do. He said “when I wore the mask when trick-or-treaters came by, it scared the little kids so much I took it off.”

It’s not just insects that are found preserved in amber. One foot and part of a tail from a 100 million year old gecko were found in amber about a dozen years ago. Researchers think the rest of the gecko was probably eaten, possibly by a dinosaur. Even though there isn’t a lot of the gecko to study, there’s enough to determine that it was a genus and species new to science, and that it was probably a juvenile gecko that would have grown up to a foot long if it had lived, or 30 cm. It was only about an inch long when it died, or a bit over two cm. It was stripey and had the same type of toe pads that modern geckos have that allow them to walk up walls.

Another foot, this one from a frog, was discovered in more of the Myanmar amber that’s the subject of ongoing studies. It was a tiny juvenile frog that lived in a tropical forest around 100 million years ago. It’s only the third frog ever found in amber, and is by far the oldest in addition to being the best preserved. Its skull, forelegs, part of its backbone, and the partial hind leg and foot are all preserved, together with a beetle. The problem is, some of the details researchers need to determine what kind of frog it is are missing, like the pelvis. They have just enough information to tantalize them since what they can see indicates that it might be related to some species of toad that live in temperate climates today, but not enough to tell for sure. You know they have to be tearing their hair out in frustration. Hopefully they’ll find another frog with all the bits and pieces they need.

Another surprise from the Myanmar amber is a baby snake only about two inches long, or 5 cm. At first researchers thought it was yet another millipede—I mean, when you’ve found 450 millipedes in amber you probably start to think everything is a millipede—but a scan determined that it was way different. It’s well preserved and even shows some features that modern snakes no longer have, like V-shaped bone spurs on the tail vertebrae that probably helped with stability when snakes first evolved to be limbless. Unfortunately the specimen is missing its skull.

Only one salamander has been found in amber, and it came from a surprising place. The amber was mined from the mountains of the Dominican Republic, which is in the Caribbean near Haiti. But there are no salamanders in the Caribbean today. The salamander in amber dates to around 25 million years ago and proves that salamanders did once live in the Caribbean. Not only that, the amber itself comes from an extinct tree that’s related to a tree native to East Africa. The salamander was a tiny juvenile that fell into a glob of resin after a predator bit one of its legs off. So, you know, it was doomed either way. Poor little salamander.

One really exciting discovery is part of an actual dinosaur tail trapped in amber. It came from a juvenile dinosaur that a scientist found at a market in Myanmar in 2015. The seller thought the tail was a plant, because—you’ll like this—it’s covered in FEATHERS that looked like bits of leaf. It’s dated to 99 million years ago. The feathers were chestnut brown on the tail’s upper surface and white underneath. They’re also very different from modern bird feathers. Researchers aren’t sure which dinosaur species the tail is from, but they do note that the dinosaur died, probably because it couldn’t get free from the resin. It wasn’t like some modern lizards that can drop their tails to escape predators.

Lida Xing, the same researcher who acquired the dinosaur tail in amber also managed to buy a bird in amber in the same Myanmar amber market. Only a few birds have been found in amber and they sell for ridiculous amounts of money—like half a million dollars—to private collectors. As a result, they’re rarely studied. Fortunately, Lida Xing was able to buy the bird in amber and it’s been studied ever since. It’s a young bird that was partially weathered away and squished after it died. It’s about 2 ½ inches long, or 6 cm, and is a type of primitive bird that went extinct at the same time as the non-avian dinosaurs 66 million years ago. It was dark brown and had teeth and clawed fingers on its wings, although both the beak and the finger-wings are missing from the specimen.

Sometimes marine or freshwater organisms are found in amber. For a long time no one understood how this happened, but in 2007 a team of researchers conducted a simple study to find out how it worked. One of the researchers owned some swampy property in central Florida. The team went there and cut pieces out of some pine trees growing in the swamp. Resin flowed from the trees’ injuries, down the trunk, and into the water. The researchers then collected the resin from the water and took it to a lab to examine it. They found water beetles, nematodes, small freshwater crustaceans, mites, even bacteria found in swampy water, all stuck in the blobs of resin. In other words, it’s not a bit unusual for water animals to get caught in resin. The unusual part is when they’re preserved in the resin long enough for the resin to fossilize into amber, and then the really rare part is when they’re found by a human who understands what they’re looking at and realizes it’s important.

Some of the most useful information preserved in amber concerns animal behavior. For instance, the recent discovery of a tick wrapped in spider silk. Spiders don’t usually eat ticks, but occasionally they do, and this tick in amber had been wrapped up in spider silk to immobilize it. Researchers aren’t sure whether the spider planned to eat the tick or was just stopping it from tearing up its web. Either way, it fell out of the web and plopped right into resin, which fossilized and was then found around 100 million years later. From this little piece of amber, we have direct evidence of a spider wrapping up its prey the same way they do today.

Another example is dated to 130 million years ago, when some green lacewing eggs hatched and the larvae and eggs were trapped in resin almost immediately. The green lacewing is a type of flying insect that’s still around today, although the ones found in resin are a species new to science. Since the babies were covered in resin during the act of hatching, researchers have learned a lot about how they emerged from the eggs.

There’s even a piece of amber dated to around 100 million years ago, also found in Myanmar, that shows a dragonfly with a missing head, together with the foot and tail of a tiny lizard. Researchers think the lizard may have caught the dragonfly and decapitated it to kill it, but before it could eat it, both predator and prey were trapped in resin. It’s too bad we don’t have the lizard’s head, because it would be really awesome if it had the dragonfly’s head in its mouth.

Some pieces of amber tell a story like this, like a photograph from millions of years ago. About 50 million years ago near what is now the Baltic Sea, a small mammal, possibly a rodent, bit a mushroom off at its base. A tiny insect, specifically a phasmid, or walking stick, was feeding on the mushroom and jumped away. All this happened just as a blob of resin dropped on the scene. The mammal fled, leaving behind a hair. The insect was trapped but was able to wriggle out of its exoskeleton in an early molt and escape, leaving its exoskeleton behind. The mushroom did nothing, because it was a mushroom. That particular phasmid species is now extinct, as is the mushroom species. Researchers don’t know much about the mammal. They know that the exoskeleton was literally shed moments before it was enveloped in resin because it still shows tiny filaments that would have crumbled away otherwise.

Even more dramatically, another piece of amber, again from Myanmar and about 100 million years old, shows a spider in the act of attacking a wasp. Both the spider, a bristly orb-weaver, and the parasitic wasp are still around today.

Other things are also preserved in amber, from pollen and plant spores to feathers and spiderwebs. It’s mined and gathered in various parts of the world for jewelry, so new amazing specimens could be discovered any day.

I could literally just keep going with this episode for hours talking about what’s been found so far, but I have to stop somewhere so I’ll leave you with one last amber inclusion.

It’s another strange insect new to science, also found in Myanmar amber dated to about 100 million years ago. It was tiny but really weird-looking. Researchers have been referring to it as a unicorn fly because it had a sort of horn sticking up from the top of its head that had three eyes at its tip. Researchers think its specialized horn with eyes on it gave it an advantage when flowers were tiny, as they were back in the early Cretaceous when it lived. Flowering plants had only recently emerged and were diversifying rapidly. It probably ate pollen and nectar. But when flowers evolved to be larger, it lost its evolutionary advantage and went extinct. It also had tiny mandibles that meant it could only eat very small particles of food, long legs, and weirdly shaped antennae.

The unicorn fly was described by our friend George Poinar, who described the weird insect with the triangular head too. And true to form, Dr. Poinar is up to his same tricks. He’s reported as saying that he was “thinking of making some masks based on it for Halloween.”

George, no! The children are frightened! Stop making Halloween masks!

One note about listener suggestions. I’ve been getting a lot of them lately, which is awesome, but I don’t necessarily use the suggestions in order. Which one I pick out for the next episode depends on a lot of things, including how much time I have for research, what strikes me as neat on any given day, and whether I can work a suggestion in to a planned episode about a larger topic. But I promise I do keep all suggestions in a list, and I will eventually get to them all! I’m always delighted to get more, too, so don’t feel like I’m telling you not to send any. Some of the best episodes I’ve done have been from listener suggestions, about animals I’d never heard of before.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.com. We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at facebook.com/strangeanimalspodcast. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!