Two newly published studies have caught my eye this week as exemplifying two important aspects of biodiversity research: describing new species and understanding which species we’ve recently lost due to human activities.
Researchers working in the Macaronesian islands of the Azores and Madeira have described five new species of endemic water rails (genus Rallus) that are thought to have gone extinct within the period when humans colonised the islands. One species may even have hung on into historic times. All of the species were either flightless or had reduced capacity for flying, making them vulnerable to over-exploitation by humans. That’s a common phenomenon on oceanic islands, with the dodo being the archetypical example.
What’s particularly remarkable is that these five new species increases the known recent diversity of the genus Rallus by about one third! The reference for the paper, and a link to the pdf, is:
The second paper is a mass-naming of 60 (!) new African dragonfly and damselfly species by a team led by KD Dijkstra, a Dutch entomologist whose work I’ve mentioned previously. I had the pleasure of teaching with KD on a Tropical Biology Association field course in Tanzania a few years ago and his knowledge of African natural history is astounding.
To put these 60 new species into context, it increases the known diversity of African dragonflies and damselflies by almost 10%. The reference and a link to the paper follows:
Finding appropriate names for all of these insect species has required a degree of ingenuity from the authors and a quote from the paper demonstrates how memorable and creative some of them are:
“The Peace Sprite Pseudagrion pacale was discovered on the Moa River near Sierra Leone’s diamond capital Kenema. Twenty years earlier villagers trapped between rebel and government forces on opposite banks drowned in these tranquil waters. Two years later Kenema became the national epicentre of the Ebola outbreak…… The horntail Tragogomphus grogonfla evokes a Liberian pronunciation of ‘dragonfly’, the sparklewing Umma gumma a classic Pink Floyd album…… and the claspertail Onychogomphus undecim simply its date of discovery, 11/11/11.”
One of the things that I’ve tried to impress upon my final year undergraduate students this term during our Monday morning biodiversity seminars is just how little we still don’t understand about life on our planet. Discoveries of new species are a regular occurrence, and for most we know nothing about their life histories or their interactions with other species (the aspect of biodiversity that particularly interests me). In other cases (as with the Macaronesian water rails) the species were gone before we knew that they even existed. I wish that I could be sure that this won’t happen in the future, but it will, until we (and the future generations that we are teaching) do something to address the problems of habitat destruction and inappropriate exploitation of biodiversity.