A Wealth of New Species

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An alien world lies just beyond the seashore. Only in the last century or so have technologies like SCUBA and submersibles allowed us to explore the oceans far below the surface. Until then, exploring underwater sea life was like trying to study a forest by dipping a bucket from a helicopter. The Census of Marine Life is now nearing its completion, but expeditions are still bringing up plenty of new finds. Like this purple variety of an enteropneust acorn worm, one of ten potentially new species found during a six-week expedition in the north Atlantic.

Using the remotely operated vehicle Isis, scientists explored areas to the north and south of the Gulf Stream and east and west of the mid-Atlantic ridge (the huge, active volcano range that is slowly pushing the Americas farther apart from Europe and Africa). In the northeast, the plains had an abundance of sea urchins, while plains in the northwest had plenty of enteropneust acorn worms, a type of animal that evolutionarily falls somewhere between invertebrates and creatures with backbones. Areas that were similar in terrain but separated by a few miles of mountainous terrain were inhabited by very different compositions of species. Some cliffs were nearly barren while others were covered in a colorful array of sponges and corals.

Discoveries of new species aren't limited to the remote depths of the unexplored oceans, though. For example, two kinds of fish that walk on the ocean floor were recently found in the Gulf of Mexico, one just below the BP oil spill. And scientists recently discovered a number of new species in a remote part of Indonesia, including the world's smallest wallaby. Richard Conniff writes this month in Smithsonian:

The truth is that big, colorful, even spectacular, new species seem to be turning up everywhere these days. We are living in what some naturalists have dubbed “a new age of discovery.” The number of species being found today “compares favorably with any time since the mid-1700s”—that is, since the beginning of scientific classification—according to Michael Donoghue of Yale University and William Alverson of Chicago’s Field Museum. These new species, they write, may be weird enough to induce the same “sense of awe, amusement, and even befuddlement that remarkable new organisms inspired during the last great age of discovery” from the 15th through the 19th centuries.

The irony, of course, is that we're also living in a time of numerous extinctions. But that's a subject for another day.

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