Who said there is nothing new under the sun? Scientists discover about 18,000 new species every year. Most of the time they find new animals without even leaving the office, while studying the collections stored in museums. Other times they find them in the great outdoors, and others still, in the deep sea, which remains mostly unexplored.
Among the new animals discovered since 1990, these are 9 of the coolest -arguably.
1. Omura’s whale
A whole whale swam under the radar until 2003.
Japanese researchers caught eight whales in the 1970’s. They were a bit odd. They looked like Bryde’s whales, but they were smaller and had some differences. Still, they were filed as Bryde’s. Then, in 1998 another small “Bryde’s” was stranded in Japan.
Five years later Japanese scientists got curious about these odd preserved specimens. And they discovered they were not Bryde’s whales after all, but a new species. According to genetics the two species, the Bryde’s and the new one called Omura’s, diverged 7 to 17 million years ago.
Scientists now had a new species, but they had not seen these whales alive. And they would have to wait 11 years for that.
In 2014 researcher Salvatore Cerchio was looking for dolphins off the coast of Madagascar, when his team filmed a medium-size whale. Thinking it might be an Omura’s, they got a DNA sample. The results confirmed their suspicions. So the team studied them and finally described them in a paper published in 2015. Now that people knew what they looked like, there were sightings all over the world.
For all the sightings and the study, the Omura’s remain a bit of a mystery. Researchers do know they are baleen whales, so they are toothless; they live in all oceans, in subtropical and tropical waters. And apparently they do not migrate like other whales. Balaenoptera omurais live in solitary, in pairs or in groups of up to 6 individuals. They are about 12 m (40 ft) long -like a four-story building- and weigh 44,000 pounds (20,000 kg).
Little wonder saolas are rarely seen, for they live in dense, remote forests.
In 1992 the Ministry of Forestry of Vietnam and the WWF were carrying out a survey of wildlife. And in a village the team found an unusual skull with long parallel horns (50 cm/20 in long). It was a hunter’s trophy. The team had not seen a similar skull before, so they asked around and found more skulls and furs. After further study the team knew they had a species new to science. The locals, on the other hand, are quite acquainted with them and call them saolas.
Saolas are not only a new species (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis), but a new genus (a broader category than species). Their closest relatives are wild cattle and buffaloes. Nevertheless, saolas look like small antelopes.
Scientists have set capture-traps to photograph this elusive animal in its habitat… and they have about five pictures so far. And since saolas die after a few days or months in captivity, scientists know little about their habits.
Saolas: looks and habitat
Saolas have a mild temper, they are about waist high and weigh up to 220 lbs (100 kg). Both females and males have antlers. Their fur is brown and they have white markings on their faces. They probably feed on grass, leaves, and other herbs from ground level. During summer they apparently live in higher ground and in lower ground during winter.
So far, they are only known to live in the Annamite Mountains of Vietnam and Laos. Both countries have natural reserves that protect the saola’s habitat, plus Vietnam created two new parks in their honor, specially designed to shelter them.
3. Bigfin squid
Researchers Richard E. Young and Michael Vecchione found five odd-looking young squids in the 1980’s. And then they realized it was not the first time scientists met these new animals, either, for there were two specimens in storage, found in 1907 and in 1954, that could match their find. But those early specimens were incomplete -one was found in the belly of a fish-, so they had been misclassified.
While the duo studied the rare squid, the French submersible Nautile, built to explore the deep sea, filmed the same odd creature off the coast of Brazil, at a depth of, mind you, 4,735 meters (15,535 ft). And then filmed it twice more in 1992: off the coasts of Ghana and Senegal, at about 3,000 meters (9,880 ft).
By 1998 Michael and Robert had reached their conclusion. The specimens were not a new species, not even a new genus, but a new family of squids (a broader category than genus). The researchers called it Bigfin squid or Magnapinnidae.
Since then, the bigfin has been caught on tape more times, always at impressive depths, and usually near the ocean floor.
The bigfin has a small body and two large fins that look like elephant ears. And has 10 extremely long arms and tentacles that end in filaments. Although they look alike in film, the tentacles are thicker and longer than the arms. Known bigfins measure up to 7 meters (23 ft), but scientists believe there are larger specimens out there. Other than that, little is known about these big squids.
Since the discovery of the family, biologists have recognized that they are not all alike, there are different species of bigfins. The last species Richard and Michael discovered in 2006 is the Magnapinna atlantica.
4. Kipunji monkey
Scientists thought this monkey was a myth. Until they bumped into it in 2003. After thoroughly examining it, they realized it was not only a new species, but a new genus.
The Kipunji, as locals call it, lives in Tanzania, in high-altitude forests.
Kipunjis are shy monkeys that flee from humans. It took biologist Tim Davenport and his team more than a year to be able to get close to them. Kipunjis live in trees, where they hide quite well, and rarely descend to the ground. They feed on plants and fruits and travel in groups of up to 36 individuals. They have light brown hair, are about 90 cm long, weigh between 22 and 35 pounds (10-16 kg), and males and females look alike. The Rungwecebus kipunji‘s closest relative is the baboon.
5. Sunda clouded leopard
Clouded leopards live in mainland Asia and in the islands of Sumatra and Borneo and everyone knows them by now. But in 2006 scientists did DNA tests on these kitties and examined the skeletons and furs kept in museums and realized the island variety is actually a different species from the one in the mainland. The two groups split about 1.5 million years ago.
All clouded leopards are medium-sized cats. Their fur has distinctive large cloud-like spots delineated in black. The spots are darker than the rest of the fur.
Bu the islanders are larger in size, have darker fur, smaller spots, and have longer canines (5 cm long/2 in) than their mainland cousins. This newly discovered species goes by the name of Sanda clouded leopards, aka Nebulosa diardis.
Little is known about clouded leopards for they are difficult to find and study in the wild. Scientist mostly know about them from zoo specimens. Since 2010, footage caught by camera-traps set in the forests have helped biologists understand them a bit better.
Sandas were thought to be nocturnal, but apparently they can be active during the day. They move both on land and through the canopy. In Sumatra they are always up in the canopy to avoid ground-dwelling tigers, for tigers feed on sundas. Sundas, in turn, feed on monkeys, birds, deer, mouses, pigs, and fishes.
Their body can be one meter long, and they have a long tail which they use for balance. The sanda is about 50 cm high and weighs up to 30 kg. They are thought to be solitary and monogamous.
6. Tapanuli orangutan
This is another case of mistaken identity. In the 1930’s a zoologist reported orangutans lived south of Lake Toba, in the island of Sumatra, Indonesia. But the discovery was missed by the scientific community at large.
Forty years later, in 1997, Erik Meijaard, a biological anthropologist, found the paper written by the zoologist and went to the difficult-to-access area to check. And indeed found the population. The specimens looked a bit different from other Sumatran orangutans and from the orangutans of Borneo, the island next door. They had smaller heads, flatter faces, and frizzier hair. But there can be variation within the same species. So Erik confirmed the existence of the population and its traits and left.
Then in 2005 Gabriella Fredriksson, from the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme, set up a field station to study this group. Soon enough the scientists started wondering if this was not a new species. And when a male orangutan died in 2013, they were finally able to study a skeleton from the group. It was different from the skeletons of the other two species.
Further confirmation of their uniqueness came from a large genetic study. According to the results, the two species from Sumatra, the known one and the new one, split about 3.4 million years ago. The closest relative of the newly discovered species is actually the Borneo orangutan, from the other island. And those two species diverged some 700,000 years ago (like Neanderthals and modern humans).
The new species, Pongo Tapanuliensis behaves in many ways like other orangutans: they live in rainforests, spend 90% of their waking time on trees, and eat mostly fruits, with the occasional invertebrate treat.
7. Genie’s dogfish
A team from the Florida Institute of Technology was doing genetic research on deep-sea sharks in the Gulf of Mexico. Little is known about these sharks, for their are difficult to study at the depths they live. Nevertheless, the heroic team tested several specimens during their years-long study. In 2018, they realized they had discovered a new species. They called it Genie’s dogfish or, more formally, the Squalus clarkae, in honor of famous shark biologist Eugene Clark.
These mini sharks are about 70 cm (2.3 ft) long and have big green-blue eyes that make them look like a caricature. They live below 200 m (656 ft) and probably feed on small fishes and invertebrates.
Up until then they had been mistaken for their similar-looking cousins (Squalus mitsukurii), that live in Japan. Shark biologist Toby Daly-Engel, who leads the team that found Genie, explains that: “Deep-sea sharks are all shaped by similar evolutionary pressure, so they end up looking a lot alike.” It is through a closer analysis and genetic testing that the differences are noted.
The shark family has extended of the late as more species are discovered. Toby and her team, for example, discovered another deep-sea species, the Atlantic Sixgill Shark, the same year they discovered the Genie’s.
8. Lesula monkey
Researcher John Hart was reviewing the pictures he and his team had taken during an expedition to remote areas of D.R. Congo. When one of the photos caught his attention. And it was not one of the pictures taken in the jungle but of a girl feeding her pet monkey in a village. John had seen similar monkeys, but not of that light color. So he went back to the village with his team and they found two more pet monkeys like it. Locals call them lesulas.
The researchers spent the next five years studying wild lesulas. And in 2012 published a paper describing the new species Cercopithecus lomaniensis. It diverged from its closest relative, the owl-faced monkey, about 2 million years ago.
Lesulas live in the rainforest, mostly on the ground. But the vast Lomani Forest is so dense that little light reaches the ground, so it is difficult to find them. Lesulas are about twice the size and weight of a house cat. They are shy and calm herbivores, which flee at the sight of humans. Meanwhile, they are quite social with other smaller primates and are known to travel with Wolf’s guenons, red-tailed guenons, and red colobuses.
In 2016 the government of Congo created the Lomani National Park to protect several species, including the lesula monkey.
Don’t know what an olingo is? You are not alone. They are small, furry, cuddly mammals that live in trees in South America. They are related to raccoons.
In the 2000’s, scientists from the Smithsonian, led by Kristofer Helgen, decided to check how many species of olingos there were. So they studied 95% of the olingos kept in the world’s museum. And they realized that one group was different from the four species known to science. They had found a new species: the olinguito.
Then they checked where those specimens came from. The answer was from the mountains of Ecuador and Colombia. So the team went looking for them. The locals, who did know the olinguitos, showed them photos and videos of the mammal and pointed them in the right direction. The team found them in the cloud forest of the Ecuadorian Andes. And after studying them, formally declared them a new species (Bassaricyon neblina) in 2013.
Olinguitos are smaller than a house cat. Their body is about 35 cm (14 in) long, and they weigh 2 pounds (0.9 kg). They are carnivores, but mostly eat fruits and insects. Olinguitos live alone, rarely come off the trees, and are nocturnal.
Kristofer, the leader of the team, has discovered about 100 new species of mammals in recent years. Among them the Greater Monkey-Faced Bat (2005), the Blue-Eyed Spotted Cuscus (2004), and the Skywalker Hoolock Gibbon (2017). But he is specially fond of having identified the olinguito, for it is the first carnivore discovered in the Western Hemisphere in more than three decades.