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Planet Earth

#74: New Species: Found Today, Lost Tomorrow


By Rebecca CoffeyDecember 16, 2010 6:00 AM
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Call it the “now you see them, soon you won’t” phenomenon. In a year that the United Nations declared the International Year of Biodiversity, scientists announced a bevy of newfound species that appeared to be already teetering on the brink of extinction.

In January a team from Israel’s University of Haifa at Oranim announced the discovery of Cerbalus aravensis, a spider with a leg span of more than five inches. Unfortunately, its sole habitat is a desert region in Israel called the Dunes of Samar, an area once covering about 7 square kilometers but reduced to a fraction of that size by agriculture and mining. Also in January, the nonprofit group Reptile & Amphibian Ecology International (RAEI) announced that an expedition to the rain forests of coastal Ecuador had found new reptiles, insects, and amphibians whose habitat is threatened by climate change and deforestation. Paul Hamilton, leader of the RAEI Ecuadoran expedition, worries that some of these species may disappear before they are even formally described.

The Caquetá titi monkey of Colombia (a remarkable animal resembling a leprechaun, first described in August) is threatened, as are Borneo’s Microhyla nepenthicola, the Old World’s smallest frog (also announced in August), and Durrell’s vontsira, a mongooselike carnivore from Madagascar whose discovery was announced in October. And things aren’t looking much better for plants. A team of American and British scientists, publishing in the 2010 Proceedings of the British Royal Society, estimated that of all the plants on earth, some 60,000 species remain to be found. Disproportionately, the scientists say, recently discovered species live in fragmented, fragile habitats—and therefore they, too, may number among those that are most threatened.

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