By Rachael Bale, ANIMALS Executive Editor
In all the time humans have been discovering and describing new species, we’ve probably only covered about a fifth of what’s out there. A study in 2011 predicted there are some 8.7 million species on Earth, and we’ve identified maybe 1.6 million of them.
As the decade ends, I wanted to know what some of your favorite species discoveries of the past 10 years are. I put the question out on Twitter, and here’s what you said: We got one of the tiniest frogs known to science; peacock spiders given the names “sparklemuffin” and “skeletorus”; a unicorn praying mantis; a giant, coconut-eating rat; and new fish with “hands.” There’s a new giant salamander, a teeny beetle named after Leonardo DiCaprio, three new species of the leaf-toed gecko (pictured below), and a crocodile that’s been hiding in plain sight. Nature’s ability to surprise is endless.
We should also acknowledge species lost over the past decade. The current biodiversity crisis threatens up to a million plant and animal species—some we know, and some we’ve yet to discover. More than 450 species were declared extinct in the past 10 years, Vox reported. They include the first mammal to fall victim to climate change—a humble rodent called the Bramble Cay melomys. There was also George, the loneliest tree snail, whose demise meant the end of his entire species, and a little bat called the Christmas Island pipistrelle.
In October, Elizabeth Kolbert wrote about what we lose when a species goes extinct. “We live in an extraordinary time,” she says. “Perhaps by recognizing this, we can begin to imagine creating a different one—one that preserves, as much as is still possible, the wonderful diversity of life.”
A New Year’s resolution perhaps? Let’s make it the new decade’s resolution.
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Your Instagram photo of the day
Vampire bird? When rations run short on Wolf Island, in the remote northern Galápagos, the sharp-beaked ground finches become vampires. Their sitting targets are the Nazca boobies and other large birds nesting on the plateau, writes photographer Thomas Peschak. “The finches–birds that inspired Darwin’s Theory of Evolution–rely on a scant diet of seeds and insects that regularly dries up. Pecking away at the base of booby flight feathers with their sharp beaks–a trait that may have evolved from feeding on the birds’ parasites–they drink blood to survive.”
Related: Nat Geo's best animal photos of 2019
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Today in a minute
Bird-friendly New York City: Enough of the carnage of birds vs. skyscraper windows. New York just voted to tighten building and design requirements to try to protect migratory birds and to stop the slaughter of what the Audubon Society estimates at 230,000 birds a year. City Lab reports the changes include making windows on the bottom 75 feet of any new building patterned glass, so birds could better distinguish them—and avoid hitting them.
Is this gift of the Magi endangered? The Bible says that frankincense was given to the parents of the newborn Jesus. Today, frankincense trees are stressed, overcut, and tapped out for a booming essential oils market, reports Rachel Fobar, of Nat Geo’s Wildlife Watch unit. The trees’ remote locations make saving them difficult, as does market pressure to sate rising demand. “We’ve loved frankincense for a long time,” says ecologist Anjanette DeCarlo. "What I don’t want to see is that we love these trees to death.”
Take that, poachers! Packs of free-running hounds are being trained in Texas before heading to South Africa to stop poachers. It’s working, officials say, pointing to a 24 percent drop in rhino poaching in Kruger National Park and a 54 percent increase in apprehensions of poachers.
More good news: Rhino poaching is down in Namibia as well, Reuters reports. Namibia holds one-third of the world’s remaining black rhinos, and it has the second largest population of white rhinos in the world after South Africa.
The big takeaway
Thinking like a song sparrow: That was the differentiator of pioneering ethologist and ornithologist Margaret Morse Wise, the subject of a new biography. Forty-five years after her death, Wise is finally getting her due, The Conversation U.S. reports. Her insights into songbird behavior, accepted today, described animals from the inside out, says Rochester Institute of Technology’s Kristoffer Whitney. Her writing, backed by extensive fieldwork, “was a radical departure from the ‘objective’ methods of a dissection table or scientific lab,” Whitney says.
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One last glimpse
Mealtime: This giant salamander, known as a hellbender, hopes to make a northern water snake its next meal. Photographer David Herasimtschuk says this image may be the first of a hellbender attempting to eat a snake.
Related: Go underwater into the overlooked world of freshwater animals