The 'Chicken from Hell' and other bizarre new species discovered in 2015

The Chicken from Hell was not a creature you'd want to meet in a dark alley.

Though just two feet long, this feathered, bird-like dinosaur had big claws, razor-sharp teeth, and in all likelihood a very nasty disposition.

Paleontologists discovered the Chicken from Hell -- also known by its scientific name, Anzu wyliei -- just this year. 

New Discoveries

Researchers describe 'new' species all the time.  Sometimes these are living creatures that have escaped detection until recently.  For instance, it's been estimated that 60-70 percent of all insect species may be undescribed scientifically, particularly as a result of many unknown species living in the canopy of tropical rainforests.

In other instances -- such as the Chicken from Hell -- they're extinct beasts that have only recently been discovered, typically from fossils.

Believe it or not, there's a group of scientists that come up with a "Top Ten" list of newly discovered species each year.  In addition to the dino-hell-chicken, here are a few of the other top 10 new species for 2015:

Cartwheeling Spider

This creature, which lives in sand dunes of the Moroccan Desert of Africa, has a unique way of escaping from predators: it rolls into a ball and cartwheels away, sort of like an arachnid snowball.

The X-Phylum

Talk about a discovery.  This strange beast, which was found in the sea near Victoria, Australia, looks rather like a mushroom.  But it's so bizarre that scientists think it might actually represent an entirely new Phylum of animal.  

Crikey, that's like discovering the first Chordate -- the group that includes all vertebrates, including fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals.  Or the first Mollusk -- which includes all clams, snails, octopus, squids, and their allies.

Parasitic Coral Plant

This peculiar plant doesn't look like a plant at all -- and it certainly doesn't live like one.

Rather than producing its food via photosynthesis, as other self-respecting plants do, this organism is a dedicated parasite, sucking the life-blood from the roots of its host plant.

For that reason it's not even green -- it doesn't have chlorophyll. 

This newly-described species lives in the Philippines, but its relatives are found in tropical and subtropical regions throughout the world.  In tropical Australia, one of its relatives is colloquially called the "Penis Fungus" -- but of course it's not a fungus and any resemblance to a penis is entirely unintentional.

Lessons for Us

Such remarkable discoveries remind us that there's still an enormous amount about life on Earth that we do not yet know. 

That much of the planet's biodiversity could vanish before we even have a chance to discover it or learn it secrets is surely one of our greatest tragedies -- a tragedy that might be largely avoided if we truly get serious about conserving nature.

 

Could tropical species be intensively vulnerable to global warming?

On 12 January 2002, Cambridge University doctoral student Justin Welbergen was studying the behavior of a large colony of flying foxes in subtropical eastern Australia.  What he witnessed that day shocked him.

Doesn't like the heat... a grey-headed flying fox.

Doesn't like the heat... a grey-headed flying fox.

It was a hot afternoon, and as the thermostat climbed above 40 degrees Centigrade, the giant bats became obviously distressed.  They began fighting over shady spots in the canopy.  Then they began licking their wrists and flapping their wings in a desperate effort to cool themselves.  

Finally, as the temperature hit 42 degrees C, they began to die -- in the thousands.  On that day at least 3,500 bats died, in nine different nearby colonies.  Females and juveniles were especially vulnerable.

What Welbergen observed was a phenomenon that has now been seen elsewhere -- from mass disappearances of lizards in Mexico to the dramatic population collapse of the white lemuroid possum in north Queensland rainforests.

Possum in peril... the white lemuroid ringtail  (photo (c) Michael Trenerry)

Possum in peril... the white lemuroid ringtail (photo (c) Michael Trenerry)

There are two striking conclusions from these observations.  First, to the surprise of many, tropical species may be the most vulnerable of all organisms on the planet to global warming.  Second, it isn't a steadily rising thermostat that endangers most species, but short, intense pulses of unusually warm conditions -- heat waves.

Why are tropical species so vulnerable?  In short, many are thermal specialists.  Think, for instance, about a polar bear -- our traditional icon for global warming.  It has to deal with temperatures ranging from, say, minus 50 degrees C in winter to plus 35 degrees C in summer -- a huge range of temperatures.

But tropical species are different.  Lowland tropical species, for instance, might see temperatures ranging from just 25 to 35 degrees during the course of a normal year -- a far narrower range.  As a result, they can become much more thermally specialized.

Where temperatures vary the most in the tropics is as a function of elevation.  On average, for every thousand meters that one goes up in elevation, the temperature drops by 6 degrees C.  

What that means is that tropical species are not just thermal specialists, they also tend to be elevational specialists.  Species tend to be adapted for the very warm lowlands, or for the cooler mid-elevations, or for the wet, cloudy high elevations, where conditions are almost chilly.

And it's the high-elevation specialists -- such as the white lemuroid possum -- that a lot of scientists are really worried about.   

Many tend to be locally endemic species, because their populations are genetically isolated from other populations on different mountaintops.  Hence, they have small geographic ranges and, often, small population sizes.

And they may be intensely vulnerable to global warming.  As temperatures rise, the geographic ranges of many high-elevation species in the tropics are predicted to shrink and fragment -- potentially disappearing altogether.  For instance, in the Australian wet tropics, most upland-endemic species of mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians are predicted to disappear entirely if temperatures should rise by more than 4-6 degrees C.

It's a frightening prospect, and it suggests that global warming could have far wider-reaching impacts than many might suspect -- especially in the tropics, the world's biologically richest real estate.

ALERT member Pierre-Michel Forget has just given a wonderful 30-minute interview on this topic.  Forget is a highly authoritative scientist -- a former president of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation and now Vice-President of the Society for Tropical Ecology.  He asks, what would just a 1 degree C increase in temperature do to tropical forests and their species?

It's definitely worth a half-hour to hear this enlightening lecture -- and to share it with your colleagues and students. 

The bottom line is this: Given that tropical ecosystems are so rich in species and thermal specialists, the best icon for global warming might not be a polar bear -- but a tropical white possum or flying fox.

 

Roads to ruin: The devastating impacts of the global infrastructure explosion

From an environmental perspective, we may be living in the most frightening times since a giant meteor wiped out the dinosaurs and many other species some 65 million years ago.

New roads everywhere you look...   (photo (c) Rhett Butler, Mongabay.com)

New roads everywhere you look...  (photo (c) Rhett Butler, Mongabay.com)

But rather than extraterrestrial devastation, today's tsunami of change is entirely of our own making.  And perhaps no change is of greater importance than the astonishingly rapid explosion of roads and other infrastructure globally. 

As ALERT director Bill Laurance highlights in two hard-hitting editorials this week -- one in the International New York Times and another in New Scientist -- the pace and magnitude of change is truly unprecedented.

For example, in the next few decades, we can expect to see some 25 million kilometers of new paved roads, some 3,700 additional hydroelectric dams, and tens of thousands of new mining and fossil-fuel projects.

In just the next 15 years, investments in new infrastructure projects could approach 70 trillion US dollars -- more than doubling infrastructure investments globally.

Many of these projects will penetrate into the world's last surviving wilderness areas, opening them up like a flayed fish.  Since 2000, for instance, the Congo Basin has been crisscrossed by over 50,000 kilometers of new logging roads.  This has opened up the Basin to poachers armed with rifles and cable snares, who in turn have killed off two-thirds of the global population of forest elephants.

We urge you to read the two brief editorials above, and share them with your friends and colleagues.  There is still time to avoid a global calamity -- but only if we act with a true sense of urgency.

Species disappearing "1000 times faster than normal"

Want to know one of the most hotly debated questions in environmental science?  It's this: How fast are species disappearing today?  A new paper in the leading journal Science suggests the answer is -- very fast indeed.

Undiscovered species... this Amazonian jay doesn't even have a scientific name yet (photo by Mario Cohn-Haft)

Undiscovered species... this Amazonian jay doesn't even have a scientific name yet (photo by Mario Cohn-Haft)

The paper, led by ALERT member and Duke University Professor Stuart Pimm with a team of eminent coauthors, makes several key arguments:

- Species extinctions today are occurring roughly 1000 times faster than the 'background' (or natural) rate that prevailed before humans appeared on Earth

- We know where the most imperiled species are located, with particularly big concentrations in the tropical Asia-Pacific region, especially in places like the Philippines, Borneo, and Sumatra

-Other regions with lots of extinction-prone species include the Andes mountains, West Africa, Madagascar, and other scattered pockets of the world

- Millions of species have not yet been discovered (scientifically described or studied) by scientists; for example, huge numbers of plant, insect, fungi, and nematode species are undiscovered, among many others

- Many of the undiscovered species are imperiled because they have small geographic ranges and occur in vulnerable parts of the world -- known as 'biodiversity hotspots' -- that have already lost much of their original habitat

- Protecting the surviving habitats in the biodiversity hotspots is crucial if we are to stave off a dramatic collapse of biodiversity on Earth

For those who care about biodiversity, this paper (which you can download free at the link above) is an authoritative and highly readable summary of what we know, think, and suspect about the future of life on Earth.