The Natural History Museum describes more than 550 new species in 2021
The largest and by far the most formidable new species to be described this year is a pair of giant carnivorous dinosaurs known as spinosaurs. Discovered by doctoral student Jeremy Lockwood on the Isle of Wight, the predators have been named “bank hunter” and “hell heron” after the swampy environment in which they would once have lived and hunted.
But spinosaurs were just two of six new dinosaurs described by scientists at the Museum, four of which were from the UK. These have included the really weird Spicomellus after, the oldest ankylosaur and the first to be found in Africa, Brightstoneus simmondsi, a new iguanodontian with an unusual muzzle also from the Isle of Wight, Pendraig milnerae, the oldest known carnivorous dinosaur in the UK, and Rhomaleopakhus turpanensis, a large sauropod from China.
“It’s been a fantastic year for describing new dinosaurs, especially from the UK,” says Dr Susannah Maidment, senior palaeobiology researcher at the museum, who helped describe some of these new findings. “Although we have known about the UK’s dinosaur heritage for over 150 years, the application of new techniques and data from around the world is helping us uncover a hidden diversity of British dinosaurs.
“These specimens are part of a large paleobiological puzzle that allows us to understand the environments of the past and how they have changed over time.”
In addition to these finds, there have been a number of other fossil finds. These included fossil bryozoans (or moss animals), algae, brachiopods and arachnids trapped in amber, but also an ancient herbivorous crocodile relative and two ancient mammals. The first of them, Megalomys camerhogne, belonged to a group of rodents that once lived scattered across the Caribbean, while the other, Borealestes cullinensis, is a “Jurassic mouse” from Scotland that would have rushed to the feet of dinosaurs 166 million years ago.
Many of the new species featured this year are crustaceans, especially a group known as copepods.
They are small, shrimp-like creatures that can be found anywhere there is water, from high mountain lakes to the deepest ocean trenches. Despite their small and unpretentious appearance, they are essential to the planet’s ecology and the carbon cycle. Being the main component of zooplankton, they are vital food for fish, krill and other invertebrates.
This incredible abundance means that copepods are one of the greatest carbon sinks in the oceans. In light of this importance in marine ecosystems, scientists at the Museum have this year described 291 incredible species of copepods.
Along with his colleague in South Korea, Professor Geoff Boxshall, a merit researcher in the Museum’s Department of Life Sciences, has spent the past year weaving his way through a huge collection created over a span of six decades by French researchers Claude and Françoise Monniot. who, by studying sea squirts, saved all the copepods they found and preserved them.
“Copepods are not only free, but many of them are parasites, and they can be found living in virtually every other major group of animals,” says Geoff. “I focused my research on these parasitic copepods from fish and marine invertebrate hosts.
“The huge Monniot collection has been made available to Il-Hoi Kim and myself, and since we are both recently retired, we theoretically had time to finally browse it. However, the collection was so huge it was somewhat intimidating – but then Covid-19 happened.
“Completing the series of articles became my lockdown project when I was unable to enter the museum.”
In addition to the extraordinary work of Geoff and his colleague documenting copepods, scientists at the Museum have also described 52 species of wasps, 13 moths, seven crabs, six flies, and five amphipods.
Once again there were also an impressive number of beetles with 90 new species described this year. This included a pair of glittering purple and green metallic beetles from India, a large monochromatic beetle with a large pair of Philippine jaws, and a tiny swamp loving beetle named in honor of Chief Mouser of 10 Downing Street Larry the Cat. .
One of the more enigmatic new species was actually known by song for decades before the animal itself was seen. In 1990, an article was published describing the song of a Southeast Asian bush cricket, although the animal that produced it is unknown.
This year, it was finally determined that the alluring chirping was the sweet song of a species found in Singapore now known as the Mecopoda simonodoi, a copy of which has in fact been in the collections since 1984.
There have been a number of other new species from all over, including five new species of plants from East Africa.
Known as Jewelweeds or touch-me-nots, they usually produce delicate pink or white flowers, with the exception of a few species that have switched to producing red flowers. Indeed, rather than being pollinated by butterflies, the flowers are rather visited by birds, who find it easier to choose the color red among the green foliage.
In addition to plants, there were eight new species of algae, six parasitic worms and three diatoms.
Finally, there were 10 new species of reptiles and amphibians. Of these, five are new snakes, including a new species, now known as the Joseph Racer, which has been described using an 185-year-old painting. Three new species of lizards have been described, including a fan-throated lizard and an Indian gecko.
While a new species of frog from Vietnam is on the list, another species has been declared likely to be extinct. There has also been a new species of caecilian, a type of snake-like amphibian that lives primarily underground and in water.
As the world continues to warm at an unprecedented rate, it has never been more important to record what is currently alive and what has existed before, with each species playing a crucial role in the functioning of our planet.
Another of this year’s biggest science stories was when, during the lockdown in February, a large chunk of space rock burned through the atmosphere before suddenly stopping in an alley in the town of Winchcombe in Gloucestershire.
Hundreds of people spotted the fireball crossing the night sky, and within hours, researchers were able to get out and retrieve more than 600 grams of the meteorite that had traveled billions of kilometers and reached over 1,6000C as it burned in the atmosphere.
Now officially classified as the Winchcombe meteorite, it is one of the 603 approved meteorites classified as carbonaceous chondrites. Each official meteorite becomes its own type specimen, which is roughly analogous to a new species.
“The Winchcombe meteorite is the first meteorite fall to be recovered in the UK for 30 years,” says Dr Helena Bates, a museum researcher who was involved in the recovery of the Winchcombe meteorite. “Winchcombe is believed to have originated from an asteroid that has hardly changed since the birth of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago.”