Home > cultural commentary > In with the new (but let’s conserve the old as well!)

In with the new (but let’s conserve the old as well!)

Have been to doctor. Now on the mend. Normal service resumed!

While I was ill, I spent a certain amount of time looking at random stuff on the net but here’s some old news that struck me as interesting.

Not a lot of people seem to know this, but 2010 was the International Year of Biodiversity. The key issue is that the level of biodiversity is declining, and we actually don’t know what the impact of this is likely to be on humans. There’s a piece by Hilary Benn on the BBC website about it – ‘Biodiversity nears point of no return‘, that came out almost a year ago (17 Jan 2010). However, even though species are becoming extinct or critically endangered, there are still new species being discovered: evidently we don’t know the Earth as well as we think we do.


I take a Gaia-centric view on biodiversity: we humans don’t have a complete picture of life on Earth, and what we don’t know will probably bite us – metaphorically speaking, at least. So we should try to walk softly on the Earth, respect all its life forms and not cause massive disruption to the environment and climate. If we do, the Earth will still be around – it just won’t be an earth that has many humans left on it, because despite current appearances we’ll end up becoming a critically endangered species. And when we’re gone, some other species will come along in a few million years to fill the evolutionary niche we occupied. That might, for example, be the cockroach (see below!).


Where was I? Oh yeah, new species being discovered. An article from the Guardian, posted online on Christmas Day: ‘New species discovered in 2010‘. The story is a run-through of 16 new species discovered in 2010, picked on the basis of cuteness (e.g. the long-nosed tree frog) or a ‘wow factor’ of some kind (a fish with teeth on its tongue, for example).

Meanwhile the Arizona State University International Institute for Species Exploration has its ‘Top 10 New Species’ list – okay, so the 2010 list is for species discovered in 2009, but it’s still an interesting list. Who would have imagined new species are still being discovered in the US as well as in remote rainforests and deep oceans?

Some of these, like Omars’ banded knifefish – Gymnotus omarorum – are redesignations of previously known but misidentified species. Others are cute, weird or wonderful, like the green bombers, Swima bombiviridis, which are deep-sea critters with a defence mechanism that involves modified gills that can be cast off and are luminescent – presumably to confuse predators.

So how many new species have been discovered recently?

The Institute publishes The State of Observed Species (SOS) annual reports, with data published each year for two years previously – well, it takes time to compile this stuff. So the 2010 SOS Report, which deals with species discovered in 2008, lists an incredible 18,225 living species and 2,140 animal fossil species described as new in calendar year 2008.

The cockroach thing I mentioned earlier – I don’t know if it will make it into the 2012 SOS report, but new species don’t only exist in weird and far-flung places. Among the new species discovered in 2010 was a new cockroach, amazingly found by two high school students and collected from their professor’s apartment in New York. Technically it may yet turn out to be a subspecies, but it’s still impressive. The full story is ‘Big Apple Bugs‘ on GrrlScientist’s blog. Actually she has several blogs and there’s a lot of cool stuff on them – this story was from the beginning of the year, 4 Jan 2010. The other intriguing thing about it is that high school students are adept enough these days to do DNA barcoding… things have evidently moved on since I was at school.

Also, an update on some news that came out in early December. The ‘arsenic based life form’ that was apparently found by NASA’s Astrobiology Unit in Mono Lake, California, isn’t quite as advertised. It’s true the microbe can utilise arsenic as an alternative to phosphorus, but it’s not ‘arsenic based’ in any real sense – it’s still a CHROPS life form. Details are explained in Pharyngula’s (aka PZ Myers) blog, in the article ‘It’s not an arsenic-based life form‘. The interesting thing, which still hasn’t been addressed, he argues, is how the microbe is adapted to live in an arsenic-rich environment and able to substitute arsenic for phosphorus if that’s all that’s available.

CHROPS, incidentally, is a shorthand for the six key elements involved in living organisms: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulphur (or sulfur, if you’re from the US). That puts paid to the traditional greeting used by aliens, then – ‘Greetings, carbon-based life form!’ Oh well, we have to move with the times.

The bit I liked was this:

It [the NASA research] doesn’t say a lot about evolutionary history, I’m afraid. These are derived forms of bacteria that are adapting to artificially stringent environmental conditions, and they were found in a geologically young lake — so no, this is not the bacterium primeval. This lake also happens to be on Earth, not Saturn, although maybe being in California gives them extra weirdness points, so I don’t know that it can even say much about extraterrestrial life. It does say that life can survive in a surprisingly broad range of conditions, but we already knew that.

Finally, it turns out some species thought to be extinct aren’t: they had become rare and gone into hiding. Details are in the Mother Nature Network article ‘Lazarus species: 13 “extinct” animals found alive‘.

The term ‘Lazarus species’ is a Biblical reference to Lazarus was raised from the dead by Jesus, though there’s nothing religious about the article.

Don’t, incidentally, bother reading the comments on the Lazarus post unless you want to trawl through about 30 pages of unintelligent flaming from people who are into intelligent design and creationism, and even more general insult-trading based on nothing in particular. Quite why this blog in particular would have attracted those kinds of comments is beyond me.

Not being much of a scientist, I’m not going to make any more detailed comments on the biology, chemistry, botany, or environmental issues, etc. etc. But there’s a lot to think about in all this stuff and indeed things to develop for the purposes of writing stories. I guess, as a final comment, it’s just interesting that being ill and unable to concentrate much, just doing the odd bit of web-surfing, has had an unexpected side-effect in terms of me finding out things I didn’t know about before.

  1. January 7, 2011 at 5:13 pm

    Surfing and learning has never been a bad idea! yes, we should all be realising that humancentric ideas of life on earth are not all about us. Biodiversity is a real issue and could have real impacts on us if we screw it up. Who knows how the planet will deal with us if we upset the balance too much? We’ve only been here five minutes in evolutionary terms. Trilobites had a much lengthier reign!

  2. January 7, 2011 at 8:37 pm

    Yes, in evolutionary terms we’re one of the most recent animals around. And hopefully we’ll have enough good sense not to put ourselves on the critically endangered list. I see that job as one we can best achieve by making sure we don’t endanger other species, a good many of which may be ‘key indicators’ of human endangerment, if we but knew it. I think we’re in complete agreement here.

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