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California Academy scientists describe 213 species in 2020

by California Academy of Sciences

This past year, researchers at the California Academy of Sciences added 213 plant and animal species to the tree of life, providing deeper insight into the rich biodiversity of our planet and helping to inform global conservation strategies. The new species include 101 ants, 22 crickets, 15 fishes, 11 geckos, 11 sea slugs, 11 flowering plants, eight beetles, eight fossil echinoderms, seven spiders, five snakes, two skinks, two aphids, two eels, one moss, one frog, one fossil amphibian, one seahorse, one fossil scallop, one sea biscuit, one fossil crinoid (or sea lily), and one coral. More than two dozen Academy scientists—along with many more collaborators throughout the world—described the new species.

While the coronavirus has presented unique challenges this year for Academy scientists—whose research typically involves expeditions or visits to scientific collections—it has also underscored the importance of their work. "Unfortunately, the pandemic is a symptom of our broken relationship with nature," says Academy virologist and Chief of Science Shannon Bennett, Ph.D. "These newly described species represent one aspect of a growing collective effort to mend that relationship. By improving our understanding of Earth's biodiversity and bringing us more in touch with the natural world, each new species serves as an important reminder—as does the pandemic—of our vital role in protecting our planet's ecosystems."

Technologies driving discoveries For some species, technology not only plays a significant role in how they are described but also how they are discovered. At up to 500 feet (approximately 150 meters) below the ocean's surface, mesophotic coral reefs pose challenges for conducting scientific research. Using traditional scuba gear to study these reefs would be impossible due to the intense pressure at such depths and the long duration necessary to reach them.

To overcome these oceanic obstacles, scientists at the Academy use revolutionary diving technologies. Closed-circuit rebreathers scrub the carbon dioxide from exhaled breaths, then return oxygenated air mixed with helium to the diver so they can observe beautiful new species, such as this year's Cirrhilabrus briangreenei, for longer at mesophotic depths.

Together these innovative technologies—gene sequencing, sound analysis, deep-sea diving equipment, and more—allow researchers to explore the biodiversity of our world like never before, adding both species and clarity to the tree of life.

Finding unfamiliar species in familiar places Despite decades of scouring the Earth, it is estimated that more than 90% of species remain unknown to science. More humbling still, a number of the newly described species each year—including an inconspicuous pipefish—are found hidden in plain sight.

Off the coast of Botany Bay, Australia, a popular scuba diving site near Sydney, pipefish have long been known to exist in the shallows among seagrass or brown algae, hiding from would-be predators. Until Research Associate Graham Short, Ph.D., discovered Stigmatopora harastii, however, none had been documented in red algae before—brown algae's deepwater relative that's lower in abundance. By subverting researchers' expectations of the genus, this unique evolutionary advantage allowed S. harastii to not only avoid competition with shallow-dwelling pipefish that prefer brown algae, but evade scientific scrutiny as well.

Despite living just off the coast of bustling Sydney, Australia, this pipefish, Stigmatophora harastii, was only just discovered. Credit: Andrew-Trevor Jones © 2020

In addition to cryptic behavior driven by evolution, another explanation for finding undescribed species in familiar places is human encroachment on nature. As major cities like Guwahati, India—home to the newly described gecko Crytodactylus urbanus—expand, surrounding ecosystems shrink. As a result, some species lose their preferred habitat and are forced out, while others well-suited to urban landscapes thrive, including some that are new to science.

Though urban expansion can be ecologically disruptive, community outreach can inspire appreciation for the species that still call concrete jungles home. Indeed, part of Research Associate Aaron Bauer's motivation for naming the gecko C. urbanus was to raise awareness about the value of urban species. "Since this diversity occurs where people live, it provides an opportunity for them to connect with nature in their own backyard," Bauer says. Importantly, this increased appreciation of local biodiversity can drive conservation efforts to protect these fragile environments.

From urban spaces to unexpected places, understanding biodiversity—particularly where humans and nature coexist and therefore where nature is most vulnerable—is crucial for effectively stewarding the planet. By continuing to scour the known for the unknown, researchers can deepen that understanding and further foster an appreciation for the natural world.

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