New species are discovered all the time, and sometimes they’re found in the drawers of museum collections, basically hiding in plain sight.
Scientists have identified more than a million and a half species of plants, animals, fungi, and microbes on the planet, but that’s just the beginning. The vast majority of species have yet to be discovered, named, and categorized. According to recently published estimates, there are more than 7 million species we have yet to identify.
Thousands of those species are being described each year, from single-celled organisms found in pools of volcanic sulfur (or your own stomach) to deep-sea organisms and larger animals like primates and birds. Expeditions are one of the primary ways to find animals not yet known to science, so researchers regularly head out to far-flung corners of the globe for a chance to spot new species.
But while scientists may have a hunch about a specimen in the field, the actual discovery is more commonly made in scientific collections—often years after collections are brought back and filed away. On average, more than two decades pass between the first collection and archiving of a new species and its formal description.
What accounts for the delay? For one, the sheer volume of the collections. Major expeditions in the early 20th century routinely brought thousands of specimens into the Museum’s collections, and researchers are still playing catch-up. Also, the team bringing back a set of specimens may not necessarily have had the expertise to recognize a new find.
“There might have been a specialist here who worked on the rodents, somebody else who might work on the carnivores,” says Nancy Simmons, curator-in-charge of the Department of Mammalogy. “But maybe the bats just got put in the drawer and filed away. Only years later, when somebody who’s interested and knowledgeable about those particular species comes back and looks closely at them, they go, ‘Wow, there’s something new here.’”
That was probably the case with the olinguito, one of many mammals collected during the 1923 Anthony-Tate Expedition. A six-month journey into the rugged interior of Ecuador, this trip by Museum researchers aimed to improve understanding of the wildlife in the country’s then little-explored forests. While birds, reptiles, and fossils were collected, a special emphasis was placed on acquiring mammal specimens, of which more than 1,500 were collected—including 57 mammals in the course of one singularly productive morning. Considering the number of specimens collected during the trip, it’s little wonder that the olinguito—Mammal #66573, a raccoon relative originally identified as a kinkajou—spent nearly 90 years on the Museum’s shelves before being described as the new species Bassaricyon neblina in 2013. Its story isn’t unusual, either.
“There are, without a doubt, other new species of mammals waiting to be discovered in this collection,” says Mammalogy Curator Rob Voss.
But it doesn’t always take a lifetime to describe a new species. Other times, with the right team in the right place, an animal may be tagged right away as a potential scientific discovery, distinct from the millions of species already identified. That might be the case with one of the mammal specimens, and several amphibian and reptile specimens, recently brought back on the Museum’s latest Explore21 Expedition, a seven-week trip to the central highlands of the island nation of Papua New Guinea.
The team, which included ornithologists Brett Benz and Paul Sweet, herpetologist Chris Raxworthy, and mammalogist Neil Duncan, headed out to one of the world’s most biodiverse areas, trudging through largely undisturbed tropical rainforests to conduct detailed surveys of local wildlife. (You can get an insider’s look at expedition life in the team’s posts from the field on our blog.)
“It’s a region with amazing intact forests that we have very little biological data on,” says Raxworthy, noting that both of those factors gave the expedition a good shot at turning up some species never before described in scientific literature. The team used a variety of methods to collect specimens, including pitfall traps—plastic buckets buried in the soil that can collect ground-dwelling creatures—and mist nets, which can snare bats and birds.
Duncan thinks one rodent, pulled from a pitfall trap by Papua New Guinea biologist Enock Kale, may represent a distinct species. While he’s careful not to make any claims that the specimen is unique before he’s done the significant work required to prove it, Duncan admits to being excited at the prospect of discovering a new animal.
“With millions of species named, one more would be a piece of a larger puzzle, but there’s still a degree of excitement associated with the idea,” Duncan says.
The work began in the field, when the skin of the specimen was removed, stuffed with cotton to maintain its shape, and dried. Back at the Museum, Duncan will be taking precise measurements of the rodent, part of the first step in distinguishing a species from a close relative by examining its morphology. The skull in particular contains a lot of information. Teeth, for instance, vary according to diet, and are slightly different in each mammal species.
Still, these variations can only tell us so much. Genetic analysis also plays a major role in identifying new species. Morphological data can be be backed up with genetic information that shows significant differences in DNA sequences between prospective new species and their known counterparts.
Researchers who think they have a new find can also look forward to a long trip through the scientific literature to see if it is in fact unique. This research phase sees scientists consult with other researchers and compare their specimens against similar samples here at the Museum and around the world.
If it does turn out to be a new find, the next step will be to name the new species. The naming process allows discoverers of new species to get a little creative (within the framework of binomial nomenclature, of course). For example, the olinguito’s species name, neblina, is taken from the Spanish for mist and inspired by the animal’s picturesque cloud-forest habitat.
Others use the opportunity as a shout-out to friends, loved ones, or Canadian rock stars. Exhibit A: the Neil Young spider (Myrmekiaphila neilyoungi), first identified in 2007 by East Carolina University biologist Jason Bond and Curator Emeritus Norman Platnick.
(Would-be species namers, know this: it’s considered very bad form to name a species after yourself, so forget leaving your own moniker stamped in the annals of scientific discovery.)
Finally, researchers must identify a holotype, the physical example used in the species' formal description. Researchers look for the most complete specimen available, and one for which there is plenty of associated data. Knowing where and when an animal was collected can be extremely important for future study. There are more than 1,000 holotypes in the Museum’s mammalogy collection, and tens of thousands of holotypes in collections across the Museum’s other divisions.
The holotype is usually housed in a museum or similar institution so that researchers from the world over can access it regularly. And as information accumulates and research is done, it’s the holotype that ensures that researchers talking about the olinguito are discussing the same animal today and 90 years from now.