Sunday, December 18, 2011

Old & New Species

Two new dwarf homalopsid snakes of the genus Myron described in 2011. A. Myron karnsi from the Aru Islands in eastern Indonesia. B. Myron resetari from Western Australia. Both species have been long confused with Myron richardsonii, a species from northern Australia.These are small (less than 400 mm), coastal species that probably hunt fish in marine environments. They are two of a small number of snakes, other than true sea snakes and file snakes, that have been able to adapt to saltwater. M. karnsi is known from a single specimen, M. resetari was known from two specimens when described, but other specimens have been found in the last few months. JCM
This is the time of year for retrospection and it is everywhere. One of the re-occurring stories is the number of new species described during the year. One press release from the California Academy of Sciences reports CAS researchers discovered 140 new species in 2011, including 72 arthropods, 31 sea slugs, 13 fishes, 11 plants, nine sponges, three corals, and one reptile (a tortoise).

A press release from 27 June of 2011 reports scientists discovered 1,060 previously unknown species during a decade of research in New Guinea, the world's second largest island; the majority of new species listed are plants and insects, but the inventory includes 134 amphibians, 71 fish, 43 reptiles, 12 mammals, and 2 birds. A similar, more recent, press release pertaining to the greater Mekong region of Southeast Asia from World Wildlife Fund (WWF) reports 1068 species were discovered or newly identified by science between 1997 and 2007 – which averages two new species a week and includes 519 plants, 279 fish, 88 frogs, 88 spiders, 46 lizards, 22 snakes, 15 mammals, 4 birds, 4 turtles, 2 salamanders and a toad.

Using AmphibiaWeb and the Reptile Database it is possible to tract the number of species of amphibians and reptiles described during a given year. Despite the week or so left in 2011 it is of interest to note that as of now (December 17) 84 new species of reptiles were described during 2011 (one turtle, 21 snakes, and 62 lizards) and 134 species of amphibians (one caecilian, five salamanders, and 128 frogs). Combined that works out to 218 species, or about 0.59 new species per day. So, we can expect another five or six new species of amphibians and reptiles to be described this year.

What is more difficult to track is the number of species rescued from synonymy. During the late 19th century, and well into the mid to late 20th century it was popular to lump species, thus many species described during the 200 years after Linnaeus were considered mistakes and their names were placed in the synonymy of other names. Reviewers of species and genera often find old names placed in the synonymy of even older names are in fact valid species. Thus, 20th century zoologists were led to believe that the diversity of life on earth, in this case, the diversity of amphibians and reptiles was much less than what we know it to be today. So, while new names are easy to count, old names become more of a challenge - but they still count because they represent real species that have been misplaced and overlooked for decades, or in some cases centuries. 

Murphy, J. C. 2011. The Nomenclature and Systematics of Some Australasian Homalopsid Snakes (Squamata: Serpentes: Homalopsidae). Raffles Bulletin of Zoology 59(2):229-236.

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