So far, science has described more than 2 million species, and millions more await discovery. While species have value in themselves, many also deliver important ecosystem services to humanity, such as insects that pollinate our crops.
Meanwhile, as we lack a standardized system to quantify the value of different species, it is too easy to jump to the conclusion that they are practically worthless. As a result, humanity has been quick to justify actions that diminish populations and even imperil biodiversity at large.
In a study, published in the scholarly open-science journal Research Ideas and Outcomes, a team of Estonian and Swedish scientists propose to formalize the value of all species through a conceptual species ‘stock market’ (SSM). Much like the regular stock market, the SSM is to act as a unified basis for instantaneous valuation of all items in its holdings.
However, other aspects of the SSM would be starkly different from the regular stock market. Ownership, transactions, and trading will take new forms. Indeed, species have no owners, and ‘trade’ would not be about transfer of ownership rights among shareholders. Instead, the concept of ‘selling’ would comprise processes that erase species from some specific area – such as war, deforestation, or pollution.
Conversely, taking some action that benefits biodiversity – as estimated through individuals of species – would be akin to buying on the species stock market. Buying, too, has a price tag on it, but this price should probably be thought of in goodwill terms. Here, ‘money’ represents an investment towards increased biodiversity.
Interestingly, the SSM revolves around the notion of digital species. These are representations of described and undescribed species concluded to exist based on DNA sequences and elaborated by including all we know about their habitat, ecology, distribution, interactions with other species, and functional traits.
For the SSM to function as described, those DNA sequences and metadata need to be sourced from global scientific and societal resources, including natural history collections, sequence databases, and life science data portals. Digital species might be managed further by incorporating data records of non-sequenced individuals, notably observations, older material in collections, and data from publications.
The study proposes that the SSM is orchestrated by the international associations of taxonomists and economists.
“Non-trivial complications are foreseen when implementing the SSM in practice, but we argue that the most realistic and tangible way out of the looming biodiversity crisis is to put a price tag on species and thereby a cost to actions that compromise them,”
Between 2016 and 2021, over 500 researchers collaborated within the DNAqua-Net international network, funded by the European Union’s European Cooperation in Science and Technology programme (COST), with the goal to develop and advance biodiversity assessment methods based on analysis of DNA obtained from the environment (e.g. river water) or from unsorted collections of organisms.
Such innovative methods are a real game changer when it comes to large-scale assessment of biodiversity and ecological monitoring, as collecting environmental samples that are sent to the lab for analysis is much cheaper, faster and non-invasive, compared with capturing and examining live organisms. However, large-scale adoption has been hindered by a lack of standardisation and official guidance.
Recognising the urgent need to scale up ecological monitoring as we respond to the biodiversity and climate crises, the DNAqua-Net team published a guidance document for the implementation of DNA-based biomonitoring tools.
The guide considers four different types of samples: water, sediments, invertebrate collections and diatoms, and two primary analysis types: single species detection via qPCR and similar targeted methods; and assessment of biological communities via DNA metabarcoding. At each stage of the field and laboratory process the guide sets out the scientific consensus, as well as the choices that need to be made and the trade-offs they entail. In particular, the guide considers how the choices may be influenced by common practical constraints such as logistics, time and budget. Available in an Advanced Book format, the guidelines will be updated as the technology continues to evolve.
“The urgency of addressing the twin biodiversity and climate crises means that we need to accelerate the adoption of new technologies that can provide data and insights at large scales. In doing so, we walk a tricky line to agree on sufficiently standardised methods that can be usefully applied as soon as they add value, while still continuing to develop them further and innovate within the field. It was a daunting task to seek consensus from several hundred scientists working in a fast-moving field, but we found that our technology is based on a strong foundation of knowledge and there was a high level of agreement on the core principles – even if the details vary and different users make different choices depending on their environmental, financial or logistical constraints.”
Looking back on the last four years that culminated in the publication of a “living” research publication, Prof. Dr. Kristy Deiner says:
“The document took many twists and turns through more than ten versions and passionate discussions across many workshops and late night drinks. All in the days when we could linger at conferences without fear of the pandemic weighing on us. As we worked to find consensus, one thing was clear: we had a lot to say and a standard review paper was not going to cut it. With the knowledge and experience gathered across the DNAqua-Net, it made sense to not limit this flow of information, but rather to try and tackle it head on and use it to address the many questions we’ve all struggled with while developing DNA-based biodiversity survey methods.”
Now that the document – or at least its first version – is publicly available, the researchers are already planning for the next steps and challenges.
“The bottom line is we’ve come a long way in the last ten years. We have a buffet of methods for which many produce accurate, reliable and actionable data to the aid of biodiversity monitoring and conservation. While there is still much work to be done, the many unanswered questions are because the uptake is so broad. With this broad uptake comes novel challenges, but also new insights and a diversity of minds with new ideas to address them. As said this is planned to be a living document and we welcome continued inputs no matter how great or small,” says Deiner.
Dr. Micaela Hellström recalls:
“The book evolved over the four years of COST Action DNAqua-Net which made it possible for the many scientists and stakeholders involved to collaborate and exchange knowledge on an unprecedented scale. Our whole team is well aware of the urgent need to monitor biodiversity loss and to provide accurate species distribution information on large scales, to protect the species that are left. This was a strong driving force for all of us involved in the production of this document. We need consensus on how to coherently collect biodiversity data to fully understand changes in nature.”
“It was a great and intense experience to be a part of the five-person core writing team. In the months prior to submitting the document, we spent countless hours, weekends and late nights researching the field, communicating with researchers and stakeholders, and joining vivid Zoom discussions. As a result, the present book provides solid guidance on multiple eDNA monitoring methods that are – or will soon become – available as the field moves forward.”
The DNAqua-Net team invites fellow researchers and practitioners to provide their feedback and personal contributions using the contacts below.
Bruce K, Blackman R, Bourlat SJ, Hellström AM, Bakker J, Bista I, Bohmann K, Bouchez A, Brys R, Clark K, Elbrecht V, Fazi S, Fonseca V, Hänfling B, Leese F, Mächler E, Mahon AR, Meissner K, Panksep K, Pawlowski J, Schmidt Yáñez P, Seymour M, Thalinger B, Valentini A, Woodcock P, Traugott M, Vasselon V, Deiner K (2021) A practical guide to DNA-based methods for biodiversity assessment. Advanced Books. https://doi.org/10.3897/ab.e68634
A new species of tiny cave snail that glistens in the light and has a muffin-top-like bulge, was discovered by Marina Ferrand of the French Club Etude et Exploration des Gouffres et Carrières (EEGC), during the Phouhin Namno caving expedition in Tham Houey Yè cave in Laos in March 2019. The new species, named Laoennea renouardi was described in the open-access, peer-reviewed journal Subterranean Biology.
A new species of tiny cave snail that glistens in the light and has a muffin-top-like bulge, was discovered by Marina Ferrand of the French Club Etude et Exploration des Gouffres et Carrières (EEGC), during the Phouhin Namno caving expedition in Tham Houey Yè cave in Laos in March 2019. The new species, Laoennea renouardi, is 1.80 mm tall and is named after the French caver,Louis Renouard, who explored and mapped the only two caves in Laos known to harbor this group of tiny snails. Only two species of Laoennea snail are known so far, L. carychioides and now, L. renouardi.
“The discovery and description of biodiversity before it disappears is a major priority for biologists worldwide. The caves in Laos are still largely underexplored and the snails known from them remain few in number,”
points out Dr. Jochum.
The fact that two species of tiny cave snails of the same group were found in two caves located in two independent karstic networks 3.4 km apart, caused the authors to question evolutionary processes in these underground hotspots of biodiversity. The authors hypothesise that the two caves might have been connected during the Quaternary, around 100–200 thousand years ago. In time, the river Yè might have formed a barrier, thus disconnecting the cave systems and separating the populations. As a result, the snails evolved into two different species.
A new species of tiny cave snail that glistens in the light and has a muffin-top-like bulge, was discovered by Marina Ferrand of the French Club Etude et Exploration des Gouffres et Carrie?res (EEGC), during the Phouhin Namno caving expedition in Tham Houey Yè cave in Laos in March 2019. The new species, Laoennea renouardi, is 1.80 mm tall and is named after the French caver, Louis Renouard, who explored and mapped the only two caves in Laos known to harbor this group of tiny snails. Only two species of Laoennea snail are known so far, L. carychioides and now, L. renouardi.
The fact that two species of tiny cave snails of the same group were found in two caves located in two independent karstic networks 3.4 km apart, caused the authors to question evolutionary processes in these underground hotspots of biodiversity. The authors hypothesise that the two caves might have been connected during the Quaternary, around 100-200 thousand years ago. In time, the river Yè might have formed a barrier, thus disconnecting the cave systems and separating the populations. As a result, the snails evolved into two different species.
Jochum A, Bochud E, Favre A, Ferrand M, Wackenheim Q (2020) A new species of Laoennea microsnail (Stylommatophora, Diapheridae) from a cave in Laos. Subterranean Biology 36: 1-9. https://doi.org/10.3897/subtbiol.36.58977
Middle Jurassic has always been considered as a mysterious ancient period full of ‘magical’ dinosaurs, pterosaurs and plants. However, when we think about the Jurassic landscape, we should take insects into consideration as well.
The lacewings, for example, are a graceful group famous for the lovely net-like veins on their wings, beautiful enough to stand the test of time, preserved as fossils. In addition, the wing spots on their wings form various patterns, which serve to tell us more about their adaptation to the particular environment.
Having carefully studied several pieces of compressed fossils of the large and distinct insects they found in Dohugou village, Inner Mongolia, Chinese scientists Hui Fang, Dong Ren, Jiaxi Liu and Yongjie Wang, College of Life Science, Capital Normal University, Beijing, discovered two species new to science.
Due to their complex, one-of-a-kind wing venations, all three of them were placed in the same genus (Laccosmylus) in the family Saucrosmylidae. Their descriptions, along with the redescription of another previously known species, are published in the open access journal ZooKeys.
“Fossil lacewing insects are much more abundant compared to living ones,” comment the authors.
“These large-sized fossil lacewing species reflect a high lacewing diversity in Middle Jurassic. Soon, they will help us reconstruct the wonderful environment of the Jurassic world.”
Fang H, Ren D, Liu J, Wang Y (2018) Revision of the lacewing genus Laccosmylus with two new species from the Middle Jurassic of China (Insecta, Neuroptera, Saucrosmylidae). ZooKeys 790: 115-126. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.790.28286
Smithsonian Institution’s DROP project describes a tenth new fish species near the Caribbean island of Curaçao
Discovered by scientists using the manned submersible Curasub in the deep-reef waters of the Caribbean island of Curaçao, a new scorpionfish species is the latest one captured with the help of the sub’s two robotic arms.
The new scorpionfish is distinguished from other similar scorpionfishes by a number of physical traits, including its distinctive bright orange-red colors, more elongated fin rays, and DNA. Inhabiting depths between 95 m and 160 m, it is also the deepest-living member of its genus in the western Atlantic Ocean.
The new scorpionfish is officially called Scorpaenodes barrybrowni in honor of Substation Curaçao and freelance photographer Barry Brown, who “has patiently, diligently, and expertly taken photographs of hundreds of fishes and invertebrates captured alive by DROP Investigators,” explain the authors. “He has generously shared his photographs, and they have enhanced numerous scientific and educational publications. It is an honor to recognize Barry Brown’s contributions to science through his photography.”
“Fish specimens that are brought up from deep reefs only occasionally surface alive,” explains Baldwin. When DROP scientists return to the surface in the Curasub with a living fish, Barry races it to his aquarium and begins to work his photographic magic.”
The new fish already has a common name as well. For the public, it will be known as the Stellate Scorpionfish, deriving from its star-shaped yellowish spots and the radiating pigment markings accentuating its eyes.
The manned submersible Curasub reaches depths up to 300 m and is used by DROP and other marine scientists to search for tropical marine fishes and invertebrates, while conventional SCUBA divers are unable to reach deeper than 30 – 50 metres below the water surface.
“The 50-300 m tropical ocean zone is poorly studied – too deep for conventional SCUBA and too shallow to be of much interest to really deep-diving submersibles,” notes Baldwin. “The Curasub is providing scientists with the technology needed to remedy this gap in our knowledge of Caribbean reef biodiversity.”
The sub relies on two hydraulic arms, one equipped with a suction hose, and the other designed to immobilize the fish with an anaesthetizing chemical. Once anesthetized, the individuals are collected with the suction hose, which empties into a vented plexiglass cylinder attached to the outside of the sub.
In January, the team of Drs. Luke Tornabene, Robertson and Baldwin discovered the Godzilla goby. About a year ago, Baldwin and Robertson stumbled upon another new goby species, which amazed the scientists with its love for the depths so much that they named it after the Curasub. In 2013, the authors recognized the DROP research program in the name of a beautiful new species of small blenny fish, Haptoclinus dropi.
“Stay tuned for more new discoveries,” suggests Baldwin. “We have only scratched the surface of our understanding of the biodiversity of tropical deep reefs.”
Baldwin CC, Pitassy DE, Robertson DR (2016) A new deep-reef scorpionfish (Teleostei, Scorpaenidae, Scorpaenodes) from the southern Caribbean with comments on depth distributions and relationships of western Atlantic members of the genus. ZooKeys 606: 141-158. doi: 10.3897/zookeys.606.8590
Prometheus, the mythological Greek heroic deity, has been given a namesake in a new species of tiny rain frog, discovered in southwestern Ecuador. The name was chosen by the international team of scientists, led by Dr Paul Szekely, Ovidius University, Constanta, Romania, in acknowledgement of the Prometeo program, funded by the Ecuadorian government.
During the day, frogs of the new species were found hiding in flowering plants, while at night — perching on leaves at low heights in well preserved cloud forests. They grow to 2-3 cm with the females being larger than the males.
The newly described species is part of a group of frogs called Terrarana (meaning ‘Land or terrestrial frogs’). This is a lineage of frogs that has evolved directly developing eggs, which are deposited in terrestrial habitats. Unlike other frogs, these ones do not have an aquatic tadpole stage and the embryos develop directly into froglets on land.
As many as 24 assassin bugs new to science were discovered and described by Dr. Guanyang Zhang and his colleagues. In their article, published in the open access Biodiversity Data Journal, they describe the new insects along with treating another 47 assassin bugs in the same genus. To do this, the scientists examined more than 10,000 specimens, coming from both museum collections and newly undertaken field trips.
Assassin bugs are insects that prey upon other small creatures, an intriguing behavior that gives the common name of their group. There are some 7000 described species of assassin bugs, but new species are still being discovered and described every year.
Linnaeus, the Swedish scientist, who established the universally used Linnean classification system, described the first species (Zelus longipes) of Zelus in 1767. Back then, he placed it in the genus Cimex, from where it was subsequently moved to Zelus. All of Zhang & Hart’s new species are from the Americas. Mexico, Panama, Peru, Colombia and Brazil are some of the top countries harboring new species.
To conduct the research, Zhang examined more than 10,000 specimens and nearly all of them have been databased. These specimen records are now freely and permanently available to everybody. Zhang’s work demonstrates the value of natural history collections. The specimens used in his work come from 26 museums in nine countries. The discovery of the new species would not have been possible without these museums actively collecting and maintaining their insect collections.
It took more than a century for some of the new species to be formally recognized and described. The first specimens of the species Zelus panamensis and Zelus xouthos, for example, had been collected in 1911 and 1915 from Panama and Guatemala. However, since then they had been waiting quietly in the collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, USA. Now, over 100 years later, they are finally discovered and given scientific names.
Meanwhile, more recently collected specimens also turned out to be new species. Specimens of Zelus lewisi and Zelus rosulentus were collected in 1995 and 1996 from Costa Rica and Ecuador, about two decades ago, a timeframe considered relatively short for taxonomic research. These interesting patterns of time lapse between specimen collecting and scientific description suggest that it is equally important to examine both long deposited in museums specimens and those newly collected from the field.
The kind of research performed by Zhang and his colleagues is called revisionary taxonomy. In revisionary taxonomy a researcher examines a large number of specimens of a group of organisms of his or her interest. This can be either a monophyletic lineage or organisms from a particular region. The scientist’s goal is to discover and describe new species, but also examine and revise previously published species.
Besides describing new species, the present taxonomic monograph treats another 47 previously described species. Nearly all species now have images of both males and females and illustrations of male genitalia. Some of these insects are strikingly brightly colored and some mimic wasps.
Zhang G, Hart E, Weirauch C (2016) A taxonomic monograph of the assassin bug genusZelusFabricius (Hemiptera: Reduviidae): 71 species based on 10,000 specimens. Biodiversity Data Journal 4: e8150.doi: 10.3897/BDJ.4.e8150
The image that comes to mind when we think of new species being discovered is that of scientists sampling in remote tropical forests, where humans have barely set foot in. However, new species waiting to be discovered can in fact be very close to us, even if we live in a strongly humanized continent like Europe.
The new species was found in a strongly humanized area in central Spain, specifically, in isolated trees at the borders of cereal fields. These trees, mainly Holm oaks (Quercus ilex), are those remaining of the former oak woodlands that once covered the Iberian Peninsula and which have been cleared for centuries.
The systematic sampling revealed the newly discovered spider had a an exclusive preference for Holm Oaks, as all individuals were collected from the trunks and branches of these trees. Therefore, it was named after this tree’s scientific name “ilicis”.
While adults measure about a centimetre in body length, juveniles are smaller and have greenish colouration that mimics new oak shoots.
The mouthparts are proportionally large, as in the case of other species of the genus, like closely related C. mildei. In the case of the latter, the mouthparts are large enough to penetrate human skin, although the effects of the poison appear mild.
From a conservation perspective, the present study puts forward the need to preserve isolated trees in agricultural landscapes. They are not only a refuge to common forest organisms but to novel species yet to be discovered as well.
Morano E, Bonal R (2016) Cheiracanthium ilicis sp. n. (Araneae, Eutichuridae), a novel spider species associated with Holm Oaks (Quercus ilex). ZooKeys 601: 21-39. doi: 10.3897/zookeys.601.8241
With its extraordinary defensive hairs, a Colombian tarantula proved itself as not only a new species, but also a new genus. It is hypothesised that the new spider is the first in its subfamily to use its stinging hairs in direct attack instead of ‘kicking’ them into the enemy.
Described in the open access journal ZooKeys by an international research team, led by Carlos Perafán, University of the Republic, Uruguay, the name of the new spider genus honours an indigenous people from the Caribbean coast region, whose language and culture are, unfortunately, at serious risk of extinction. Meanwhile, its species’ name pays tribute to renowned Colombian author and Nobel laureate for his novel ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ Gabriel García Márquez.
The new tarantula, formally called Kankuamo marquezi, was discovered in Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia. When examined, the arachnid showed something extraordinary about its defensive hairs and its genitalia. The hairs were noted to form a small oval patch of lance-shaped barbs, hypothesised by the scientists to have evolved to defend their owners by direct contact.
On the other hand, when defending against their aggressors, the rest of the tarantulas in this subfamily need to first face the offender and then vigorously rub their hind legs against their stomachs. Aimed and shot at the enemy, a ball of stinging hairs can cause fatal injuries to small mammals when landed into their mucous membrane (the layer that covers the cavities and shrouds the internal organs in the body). Once thrown, the hairs leave a bald spot on the tarantula’s belly.
“This new finding is a great contribution to the knowledge of the arachnids in Colombia and a sign of how much remains to be discovered,” point out he authors.
“The morphological characteristics present on Kankuamo marquezi open the discussion about the phylogenetics relationship between subfamilies of Theraphosidae tarantulas and the evolutionary pressures that gave rise to the urticating hairs.”
Perafán C, Galvis W, Gutiérrez M, Pérez-Miles F (2016) Kankuamo, a new theraphosid genus from Colombia (Araneae, Mygalomorphae), with a new type of urticating setae and divergent male genitalia. ZooKeys 601: 89-109. doi: 10.3897/zookeys.601.7704
Future Martian explorers might not need to leave the Earth to prepare themselves for life on the Red Planet. The Mars Society have built an analogue research site in Utah, USA, which simulates the conditions on our neighbouring planet.
Practicing the methods needed to collect biological samples while wearing spacesuits, a team of Canadian scientists have studied the diverse local flora. Along with the lessons that one day will serve the first to conquer Mars, the researchers present an annotated checklist of the fungi, algae, cyanobacteria, lichens, and vascular plants from the station in their publication in the open-access journal Biodiversity Data Journal.
Located in the desert approximately 9 km outside of Hanksville, Utah, and about 10 km away from the Burpee Dinosaur Quarry, a recently described bone bed from the Jurassic Morrison Formation, the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) was constructed in 2002. Since then, it has been continuously visited by a wide range of researchers, including astrobiologists, soil scientists, journalists, engineers, and geologists.
Astrobiology, the study of the evolution and distribution of life throughout the universe, including the Earth, is a field increasingly represented at the MDRS. There, astrobiologists can take advantage of the extreme environment surrounding the station and seek life as if they were on Mars. To simulate the extraterrestrial conditions, the crew members even wear specially designed spacesuits so that they can practice standard field work activities with restricted vision and movement.
In their present research, the authors have identified and recorded 38 vascular plant species from 14 families, 13 lichen species from seven families, 6 algae taxa including both chlorophytes and cyanobacteria, and one fungal genus from the station and surrounding area. Living in such extreme environments, organisms such as fungi, lichens, algae, and cyanobacteria are of particular interest to astrobiologists as model systems in the search for life on Mars.
However, the authors note that there is still field work to be executed at the site, especially during the spring and the summer so that the complete local diversity of the area can be captured.
“While our present checklist is not an exhaustive inventory of the MDRS site,” they explain, “it can serve as a first-line reference for identifying vascular plants and lichens at the MDRS, and serves as a starting point for future floristic and ecological work at the station.”
Sokoloff P, Hamilton P, Saarela J (2016) The “Martian” flora: new collections of vascular plants, lichens, fungi, algae, and cyanobacteria from the Mars Desert Research Station, Utah.Biodiversity Data Journal 4: e8176. doi: 10.3897/BDJ.4.e8176