Another year rolled by and we at Pensoft have a lot to celebrate! This year, we marked our 30th birthday, and what a ride it’s been! We thank all of you for sticking around and helping us put biodiversity science in the spotlight where it deserves to be.
The holiday season is always great fun, but for us, every biodiversity or conservation win is reason enough to celebrate. And we’ve had so many this year! We already showed you our top species for the first half of 2022. Here’s an update for the second half with the most exciting new species that we’ve published across our journals:
The elusive owl from a remote island
The Principe scops-owl (Otus bikegila) was discovered on the small island of Príncipe, just off Africa’s western coast. Its existence had been suspected since 1998, but locals said its presence on the island could be traced back to 1928.
The bird is endemic to the island of Príncipe. Furthermore, the research team behind its discovery noted that it can be found only in the remaining old-growth native forest on the island, in an area that largely remains uninhabited.
Otus is the generic name given to a group of small owls sharing a common history, commonly called scops-owls. They are found across Eurasia and Africa, and include such widespread species as the Eurasian scops-owl (Otus scops) and the African scops-owl (Otus senegalensis).
The species epithet “bikegila”, in turn, was chosen in homage of Ceciliano do Bom Jesus, nicknamed Bikegila – a former parrot harvester from Príncipe Island and now a park ranger on the island.The new species quickly became insanely popular, generating memes (a true sign of its popularity!). One website even described it as “a flying meme-generator that sounds like a newborn puppy.”
Published in ZooKeys.
The underground carnivore
Nepenthes pudica is a carnivorous plant that grows prey-trapping contraptions underground, feeding off subterranean creatures such as worms, larvae and beetles.
It belongs to pitcher plants – a group of carnivorous plants with modified leaves (called pitfall traps or pitchers) that help them catch their prey.
Pitcher plants usually produce pitfall traps above ground at the surface of the soil or on trees. N. pudica is the first pitcher plant known to catch its prey underground.
At first, the researchers thought the deformed pitcher protruding from the soil that they saw had accidentally been buried. Only later, when they found additional pitcherless plants, did they consider the possibility that the pitchers might be buried in the soil.
Then, as one of the researchers was taking photos, he tore some moss off the base of a tree and found a handful of pitchers.
The unique plant, however, could already be under threat. As it only lives in one small area of Indonesia, scientists believe it should be classed as Critically Endangered.
Published in PhytoKeys.
The graveyard-dwelling snake
In November 2021, biologist Alejandro Arteaga and his colleagues were traveling through the cloud forests of Ecuador looking for toads, when a local woman told them she had seen odd snakes slithering around a graveyard. Based on her description, the team suspected they might be ground snakes from the genus Atractus, which had never been scientifically recorded in that area of Ecuador.
Indeed, they were able to discover three new snake species living beneath graves and churches in remote towns in the Andes mountains.
The “small, cylindrical, and rather archaic-looking” snakes all belong to a group called ground snakes. In general, not a lot of people are familiar with ground snakes, as they usually remain hidden underground.
All three snakes were named in honor of institutions or people supporting the exploration and conservation of remote cloud forests in the tropics. Atractus zgap, pictured here, was named in honor of the Zoological Society for the Conservation of Species and Populations (ZGAP), a program seeking to conserve unknown but highly endangered species and their natural habitats throughout the world.
However, the majority of the native habitat of these new snakes has already been destroyed. As a result of the retreating forest line, the ground snakes find themselves in the need to take refuge in spaces used by humans (both dead and alive), where they usually end up being killed on sight.
Published in ZooKeys.
The beautiful aquarium fish
Unlike some other participants in this list, this one took a while before it was confirmed as a new species: “We did not discover that it was a new species overnight,” says Oscar Lasso-Alcalá, one of the people behind its discovery.
A. mikoljii is a new species for science, but it is not a “new species” for people who already knew it locally under the name of Pavona, Vieja, or Cupaneca in Venezuela or Pavo Real, Carabazú, Mojarra and Mojarra Negra in Colombia. Nor for the aquarium trade, where it is highly appreciated and has been known by the common name of Oscar.
Moreover, the species has been of great food importance for thousands of years for at least nine indigenous ethnic groups, and for more than 500 years to the hundreds of human communities of locals who inhabit the Orinoco River basin in Venezuela and Colombia. In the plains of Orinoco, it is considered a delicacy “due to its pleasant taste and enhanced texture”.
Oscar Lasso-Alcalá has a special relationship with this fish. “It is more than just a fish in an aquarium since it is considered a true pet,” he says.
Published in ZooKeys.
The spiny-tailed gecko
Recently, Javier Lobon-Rovira, one of the people behind the discovery of this new gecko, told us what it was like to find this exciting new species: “That night we were tired, so we decided to have a short walk around the camp. And… there it was…! Like a ghost, this small, cryptic, and elusive gecko started showing up in every big rock boulder.”
Kolekanos spinicaudus is part of Kolekanos, a unique and iconic gecko genus that is only known from southwestern Angola.
Until this discovery, Kolekanos only had one species in the genus, known only from ~200km south of the new discovery, but that species had feathers on its tail, not spines like K. spinicaudus. Immediately, the researchers knew they were dealing with a Kolekanos… but they were astonished to see the spines.
The scientific name “spinicaudus” refers to the unique appearance of the tail of this new species.
K. spinicaudus’s home in southern Angola remains poorly explored, even as it has been considered as an important source of diversification and endemism in West Africa.
Published in ZooKeys.
Honorable mention: the bee with a dog-like snout
“Insects in general are so diverse and so important, yet we don’t have scientific descriptions or names for so many of them,” says Dr Kit Prendergast, from the Curtin School of Molecular and Life Sciences.
The new bee species she discovered, Leioproctus zephyr is excellent proof that we still have a lot to learn about bee biodiversity.
The story behind L. zephyr’s name is quite interesting – it was named after Zephyr the Maremma dog, Dr Prendergast’s fellow companion. The researcher says Zephyr played an important role in providing emotional support during her PhD. The name also references the dog-like “snout” in the bee’s anatomy that she found rather unusual.
The bee species was in fact first collected in 1979, but it had to wait until 2022 to be officially described.
However, Dr Prendergast says its future remains uncertain, as it is highly specialised, and has a very restricted, fragmented distribution.
“The Leioproctus zephyr has a highly restricted distribution, only occurring in seven locations across the southwest WA to date, and have not been collected from their original location. They were entirely absent from residential gardens and only present at five urban bushland remnants that I surveyed, where they foraged on two plant species of Jacksonia.”
Published in Journal of Hymenoptera Research.
Honorable mention: Two scorpion species described by high-school citizen scientists
In 2019, California teenagers Harper Forbes and Prakrit Jain were looking at entries on the naturalist social network iNaturalist, when they noticed a mysterious scorpion that a citizen scientist had encountered near a lake in the Mojave Desert. The species had remained unidentified since it was uploaded six years earlier.
The entry that they were looking at was a yet undescribed scorpion species whose name they would add to the fauna of California. Shortly after, they found another entry on iNaturalist that also appeared to be an unknown scorpion species.
The new species, Paruroctonus soda and Paruroctonus conclusus, are playa scorpions, meaning they can only be found around dry lake beds, or playas, from the deserts of Central and Southern California.
“These kids can find anything,” Dr Esposito told The Guardian. “You set them out in a landscape and they’re like: ‘Here’s every species of snake, here’s every scorpion, every butterfly,’ and it’s kind of incredible.”
Forbes and Jain were still in high school when they made their groundbreaking discoveries. Now they are in college: Forbes at the University of Arizona studying evolutionary biology and Jain at the University of California, Berkeley, for integrative biology.
Published in ZooKeys.