1. Tahina Palm: The Suicide Tree
When this new species of gigantic tree on Madagascar blossoms, its flowers and fruits may as well form a funeral bouquet: Betting its line’s survival on one season’s worth of seeds, the Tahina spectabilis palm blossoms only once, then dies.
The self-destructing palm is one of an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 new species discovered annually. Of these, scientists from around the world–working with International Institute for Species Exploration at Arizona State University and using undisclosed criteria–name the "top ten" each year.
"We know so few of the species on Earth," said the institute’s founding director Quentin Wheeler. "Life is probably the biggest and most complex scientific story we’ll ever explore."
—Photograph courtesy John Dransfield
2. Chan’s Megastick: Longest Insect
At the Natural History Museum in London, 28 million specimens fill drawers and other holding containers. Discovered just last year, this nearly 2-foot long (60-centimeter-long) insect takes up a whole insect drawer–and has to be mounted diagonally to fit.
On May 22, 2009, the International Institute for Species Explorations named the megastick one of the top ten new species documented in 2008.
"All stick insects are impressive," said institute director Quentin Wheeler. "It’s just the sheer size of that thing that is truly remarkable. A comparable find in some other group is almost inconceivable–it would be like finding a (new species of) giant redwood or blue whale."
—Photograph courtesy Natural History Museum via AP
3. Satomi’s Pygmy Seahorse: Pygmy Among Pygmies
Discovered last year in a coral reef off Indonesia, Satomi’s pygmy seahorse–named after the diver who collected the first specimens–is a tiny creature of the night that lives below reef overhangs. Seahorses are some of the world’s smallest vertebrates, and the half-inch-long Satomi’s pygmy is the world’s smallest seahorse. For this distinction, the International Institute for Species Exploration named the new type of seahorse one of its 2009 list of the top ten new species documented in 2008.
(See more pictures of new species of pygmy seahorse.)
—Photograph by Stephen Wong and Takako Uno
4. Barbados Thread Snake: World’s Smallest Snake
Small enough to fit on a U.S. quarter, this tiny new species of thread snake–the world’s smallest–found on Barbados is right on the money for the 2009 list of top ten new species announced by the International Institute for Species Exploration on May 22.
The thread snake may be at or near the smallest size possible for snakes, due to an evolutionary trade-off between size and reproductive strategy, according to the snake’s discoverer, biologist S. Blair Hedges of Penn State University. Find out why >>
—Photograph courtesy S. Blair Hedges
5. Ghost Slug: Pasty Briton
Taxonomists found it particularly impressive when a team of Welsh naturalists turned up a new species of slug in a garden in the Welsh capital of Cardiff.
The British Isles "is such a well-known place," said Quentin Wheeler, director of the International Institute for Species Exploration, which on May 22 released its 2009 list of the top ten new species documented in 2008. "To turn up a pretty-good-size organism doesn’t happen every day."
Adding to the ghost slug’s idiosyncratic appeal: bladelike teeth help the species suck up worms like spaghetti. See a picture of the teeth and learn more about the ghost slug >>
—Photograph courtesy Ben Rowson
6. Opisthostoma Vermiculum: Snail With A Twist
Looking like the byproduct of an overzealously squeezed tube of toothpaste, the shell (such as the two pictured) of the newly discovered snail Opisthostoma vermiculum whorls and coils like no gastropod armor ever seen before.
Its complex, minute spirals pose monumental biological puzzles. For one thing, how does this intricate coil–just a fraction of an inch long–give its inhabitant any evolutionary advantage over its environment?
For the vexing questions it poses, the tiny snail with a wormlike shell has wriggled its way into a 2009 list of the top 10 new species documented in 2008.
—Photograph courtesy Reuben Clements
7. Deep Blue Chromis: First Among Millions?
Every year biologists across the planet document up to 20,000 new species. It’s "a nightmare for tracking down and keeping score of all the new species every year." But last year saw the introduction of a new master database for biological classification–a kind of Wikipedia of life–called ZooBank.
The deep blue chromis (pictured) was the first new ZooBank entry. That distinction helped win the deep-reef fish a slot in the 2009 list of the top ten new species documented in 2008.
—Photograph courtesy Richard Pyle
8. Mother Fish: First Pregnancy?
"The oldest pregnant mum"–as the journal Nature described the so-called mother fish (Materpiscis attenboroughi)–was discovered via a 380-million-year-old fossil with an impression of an embryo in its uterus, making this swimmer the oldest creature known to have sexually reproduced and given birth to live young.
Though long extinct, M. attenboroughi still edged out more than 15,000 living creatures discovered in 2008 to claim a spot on the 2009 list of the top ten species documented in 2008.
9. Charrier Coffee: Natural-Born Decaf
From Cameroon comes this newly discovered coffee plant, which sprouts beans utterly devoid of caffeine.
The charrier bean–named to the 2009 top ten list of new species–may someday lead to the ultimate natural decaf. Even so, said taxonomist Quentin Wheeler, director of the institute behind the list, "I have no idea if this has beans you would want to drink or not."
—Photograph courtesy Francois Anthony
10. Microbacterium Hatanonis: Bug in a Spray
Until last year no one had found microbacteria in artificial chemicals or other man-made products. So the 2008 documentation of a new microbacterial species in off-the-shelf hair spray was a step toward the biosphere’s brave new postindustrial future.
It’s probably safe to assume that M. hatanonis lived in some natural environment before turning up in beauty aids. Though unknown in nature, the microbug "presumably … just turned up here as a contaminant," said Quentin Wheeler, director of the institute that put M. hatanonis on the 2009 top ten list of new species.