When I was a child, one of the first books I received was one on farm animals: how to recognize them, what they were called and, of course, what sounds they made. In fact, if you think about it, you probably spend the first three years of your life learning what the various things around you are called, and often, by trial and error, which of them you can eat. Some things tasted bad, most things your mother took away before you could get a good bite of it, and a few tasted good. In everyday life, it’s important that all those things have names.
From the scientific side of things, it’s not much different. One of the most important research activities at the Canadian Museum of Nature is describing and naming species: the science of taxonomy. Rather than give simple, common names to species, we use a system implemented in 1758 by the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus. This is a binomial system that uses two names: one is the genus, or group, to which the species belongs, and the second is the actual species name itself.
The key to the system is that there is only one valid combination of a genus name with a species name. Consequently, there is no ambiguity in knowing what that species is, and from there, where it lives and what it does. If, for example, I say “Acer saccharum“, one knows that this can only be the sugar-maple tree, a species of maple that is native to eastern North America and best known for its bright autumn foliage and for being the primary source of maple syrup. And so it goes for all species: one name, one species. Once you know the scientific name for something, you can access all known information about it.
Each year, museum scientists carry out research activities worldwide in their quest to find and name new species. These new species can be animals, plants, minerals or fossils.
The year 2014 saw museum scientists involved in the naming of
- 33 new weevils
- 1 new amphipod
- 1 new diatom
- 1 new mineral
- 3 new fossil reptiles.
Michel Poulin and colleagues discovered Entomoneis calixasini, a very unusual and curiously architectured marine diatom recovered from deep sediment cores in the Mamara Sea, Turkey.
Ed Hendrycks described Ptilohyale brevicrus, a marine amphipod collected in the intertidal zone amongst algae, cobble and sand off the coast of South Korea.
Joel Grice described a new species of mineral, Telluromandarinoite, which occurs in Coquimbo Province in the Chilean Andes, about 640 km north of Santiago.
Aside from a single species, Sphenophorus spangleri, that I named from Sinaloa, Mexico, I teamed up with Mexican Ph.D. student, Jesus Luna Cozar, to describe 32 new species in the weevil genus Tylodinus in the Mexican state of Chiapas that we collected there over the past number of years. Most of these were from leaf litter, but some were found on black, crusty fungus living on the undersides of large rotting logs. Luna Cozar carried out the naming part of the project and chose to name one of the species after me.
Xiao-Chun Wu described three new fossil reptiles, perhaps the most interesting of these being Atopodentatus unicus, a new marine genus and species from the Triassic Period of China, with a highly specialized filter-feeding adaptation not seen before.
Scientists have named about 1.5 million species already, but there are many more to be found. Sometimes these can be found in the large collections of our museum or in one of the many other museum collections around the world, but the most exciting way to discover these new things is to be out there in the field finding them ourselves. Past blog articles will tell you lots about our field work; please read them.
And remember, cows go moo, an apple tastes good, and you should not eat dirt.
Species Discoveries at the Museum in 2014