Here we are in the year 2021 and we still haven’t discovered life anywhere outside of this floating blue orb that we call Earth. The unique natural conditions that exist on this planet have made an abundance of different lifeforms possible. Recent studies have suggested that Earth may be home to around 9 million species. Of that 9 million, only about 1.6 million have been discovered thus far. So it’s no surprise that every year, scientists discover a wealth of new species that continue to amaze us and reveal to us the countless ways that nature makes life possible.
Scientists have been working day and night to improve our understanding of the natural world and the other creatures that inhabit our Earth. This research, apart from its inherent value in broadening our knowledge of the variety of life on our planet, is crucial to the survival of our species. There are organisms that purify our air and water, fertilize the soil that we grow our food in, and provide the medications that keep members of our species alive. Without understanding the spectrum of life that exists on our Earth, we can never hope to progress as a species in a sustainable way, which is why these types of discoveries are so important.
The class of 2021 so far is full of some extremely interesting organisms. In fact, the recent uncovering of a human skull in China nicknamed the “Dragon Man” may represent an extinct species of human, but that’s yet to be confirmed. Still, scientists in 2021 have discovered some exciting new organisms like fingernail-sized chameleons, adorable octopuses, and venomous snakes. In the interest of congratulating our scientists on their new discoveries and alerting the world to the existence of these fabulous creatures, here are five of the new species that have been discovered in 2021 so far:
1. Emperor Dumbo Octopus (Grimpoteuthis imperator)
The Dumbo octopus has got to be one of the strangest and cutest animals that lives in the deep ocean. Just look at those ears! Well, in fact, those ears are actually fins that these creatures use to propel themselves through the water in search of food or to avoid predators. But the fact that the Dumbo octopus is named after a Disney character, is completely harmless to humans, and is undeniably adorable certainly makes them a strong competitor for the title of the most lovable sea critter out there.
The Emperor Dumbo octopus differs from other known species of Dumbo octopus notably in the number of suckers it has on its tentacles as well as in the shape of its beak and gills. The specimen that was first used to identify the species was dead when they found it, which is fairly common with Dumbo octopus discoveries.
These animals dwell around 4,000 feet underwater in the Pacific Ocean, making them some of the deepest-living octopuses known to science. The fact that they live so deep below the surface also makes it extremely rare for scientists to find a Dumbo octopus intact. The Emperor Dumbo carcass, however, was pretty well preserved, which allowed scientists to use MRI and micro-CT technology to identify it as a new species.
2. Rice’s Whale (Balaenoptera ricei)
Rice’s whale, named after biologist Dale Rice, will probably be the largest new species discovered in 2021. They can grow to over 42 feet in length and over 60,000 pounds, which is about five times as heavy as the average elephant. The fact that something so massive could be swimming through the ocean undiscovered kind of makes you wonder if the Loch Ness Monster could be real.
Previously thought to be a Bryde’s whale, the Rice’s whale was incorrectly categorized for decades until a recent morphological and genetic study of one of the specimens revealed that these whales constituted a different species from Bryde’s whales. Rice’s whales are extremely rare, only found in the Gulf of Mexico, and there are believed to be only around 100 of them left in the world.
3. Suzhen’s Krait (Bungarus suzhenae)
Suzhen’s krait was discovered by German and Chinese researchers in southwestern China and northern Myanmar. This snake was named after Bai Suzhen, the main character from one of China’s four great folktales called Legend of the White Snake. While Bai Suzhen was a thousand-year-old snake spirit, which makes sense, she’s also associated with medicine, healing, and love, which is slightly ironic for the namesake of a venomous snake. Suzhen’s krait was also retroactively discovered to have been the species of snake that killed renowned herpetologist Joseph B. Slowinski in 2001.
The identification of Suzhen’s krait as a unique species has profound medical implications and will help medical professionals develop an antivenom to treat the snake’s bite. The genus Bungarus, also known as banded kraits, contains several species with extremely similar appearances, making it hard to tell them apart. However, being able to identify what species of snake someone was bitten by is often vital to treating them for the snake’s venom.
4. Ayers Ant (Strumigenys ayersthey)
While this recently discovered species of ant does not have a colloquial name, its scientific name has made some major waves in the world of taxonomy. This is the first species ever to receive a nonbinary Latin name. Historically, the name of a species ends with the suffix –ae, which is feminine, or –i, which is masculine. Rather than conforming to these traditions, Douglas Booher of Yale University, the taxonomic expert who identified this as a new species, decided to use the nonbinary suffix –they.
The name chosen for this species of Strumigenys was also a hat tip to artist and human rights activist, Jeremy Ayers, a protege of Andy Warhol who went by the name Silva Thin. In writing the etymology for the ant’s name, Booher enlisted the help of Michael Stipe, lead vocalist of the band R.E.M and fellow friend of Jeremy Ayers. Booher has said that going forward, he will continue to name new species after people he admires and that he will use either an –ae, –i, or –they suffix depending on the wishes of that person.
5. Nano-Chameleon (Brookesia nana)
Another extremely cute new species discovered this year, the nano-chameleon rarely gets larger than a fingernail, making it a contender for the smallest reptile known to science. Apparently, despite their small size, these animals have incredibly large genitals relative to their body size. Unlike other species of chameleon, though, the nano-chameleon does not change color. Its skin is always brown, which helps it blend with the dense rainforests of northern Madagascar.
The fact that nano-chameleons’ genitals are about 18% of their body mass on average is not only kind of funny, it also may hold clues to the sexual strategies of these amazing animals. While in larger chameleons, the males are often larger than the females, the reverse is typically true in smaller chameleons. So, to compensate for their small size relative to females, these smaller male chameleons have to develop large sexual organs to make reproduction viable. Unfortunately, the small size of the nano-chameleon also makes it extremely vulnerable to deforestation.