Throughout 2023, scientists at the Natural History Museum in London were busy documenting new species, from an ancient dinosaur to worms at the bottom of the ocean, describing an extraordinary 815 new species in 2023.
Identifying that a species is new to science is the first step to understanding it and therefore protecting it. Describing the new species, on a morphological and genetic scale, underpins much of the work that goes into protecting, preserving and reversing declines in biodiversity across the natural world.
The uncontested stars of this year’s list are the wasps, with a staggering 619 new species described over the past 12 months. With 2023 celebrating the 60th anniversary of Doctor Who, an entire genus of wasp has been named Dalek along with the 14 species within it, giving a nod to the long-running sci-fi series.
Not just restricted to the picnic-disrupting black and yellow kind, wasps are in fact an incredibly diverse group of insects that include pollinators, predators, parasites and parasitoids. The majority of new wasps this year belong to a group known as the Encyrtidae. These are parasitic insects that lay their eggs on, and in, unsuspecting invertebrates hosts.
The astonishing numbers described this year are largely due to the ongoing work of the Museum’s Scientific Associates Dr John Noyes and Christer Hansson, who between them have published 574 new species as part of their work documenting the diversity of Hymenoptera in Costa Rica. As well as being striking to look at, with flashes of metallic blues, purples and oranges, they are also economically significant animals that help control agricultural pests.
Dr John Noyes comments: “In the past 60 years or so, three species of Encyrtidae have been incredibly important. One in preventing the possible starvation of up to 300 million people in Africa, a second preventing the rainforest from destruction in Thailand, and another the collapse of the economy of Togo.”
Following on from the wasps, there were 58 new species of beetles named. This has included a number of vivid green and pinkish-orange darkling beetles from China and Laos, and four new long-snouted weevils from South Africa.
Joining the invertebrates are three freshwater and one marine crab, a handful of trematode worms and protists, two bees from Oman and six stick insects from Australia. This included one stick insect called Micropodacanthus tweedae that was found on the side of a bin, proving that new species can be found in even the most unremarkable of environments.
That even extends to the built-up hubbub of London, where an unidentifiable moth discovered in Ealing turned out be a new species actually native to Western Australia. Called Tachystola mulliganae after the amateur mother who found it, the moth has so far eluded other urbane trappers. It joins eight other moths named this year.
Moving slightly further afield to the coast of Byron Bay, Australia where a whale carcass on the ocean floor has proven to be particularly rich pickings. On the remains of this one whale, researchers were able to identify an incredible nine new species of polychaete worms, including two that actually eat the bones.
The tally of vertebrates described each year is often lower than their invertebrate counterparts. This year’s new entries include 24 new species of frogs, of which 20 are miniature species in the genus Mantidactylus from the forests of Madagascar. In addition to these, there have also been a handful lizards such as Strophurus spinula, a gecko from Australia that has the most strikingly patterned eyes, a snake and two fish.
There have been a number of new plants and algae also described this year. This has included a new species of birch tree from China and 15 newly described species of algae from the freshwater pools, creeks and bores of Australia’s Northern Territory.
In addition to the living, researchers have also been busy describing the past diversity of Earth.
This year has seen four new fossil bird species. These include an ancient, toothed bird that was flapping around at the time the asteroid hit, a species of Mauritius ground thrush that likely went extinct in the 1600s after the introduction of black rats, and the largest penguin ever known to exist, Kumimanu fordycei.
There was also a new dinosaur from the Isle of Wight. The species of large, armoured ankylosaur would have once roamed the flood plain with a meandering river that covered the island around 140 million years ago. It was named Vectipelta barretti after the Museum’s Professor Paul Barrett.
Dr Susannah Maidment is a palaeontologist at the Museum who helped describe this new species.
“Paul has had an outsized influence on our discipline,” says Susie. “He is incredibly high profile and has contributed an enormous amount to the field. But he’s also had an absolutely huge influence on all of our careers, and we wanted to thank him for that.”
Diving beneath the waves and there has also been a number of fossil aquatic species named this year. This has included a trio of trilobites, a smattering of ancient sharks, a horseshoe crab relative and a couple of fossil turtles, in addition to an ancient creature called Anomalocaris dalyae, which would have been the largest predator swimming the seas roughly 500 million years ago.
As plants then first emerged onto land, a newly described species of parasitic fungus was not far behind. Discovered infecting the roots of 400-million-year-old plants, Potteromyces asteroxylicola, named after Beatrix Potter, best known as beloved author, but honoured here due to her reputation as a dedicated mycologist. The fungus is the earliest disease-causing fungus ever discovered.
Finally, there have been a number of extraterrestrial classifications with 14 new meteorites described by Museum scientists this year, and a new species of mineral named Mikecoxite joining the list.
As part of The Darwin Tree of Life project, any new species found in the UK will have their DNA barcode sequenced, and full genomes registered, and uploaded onto the extensive database which aims to host data on all described UK species. In fact, this year, the project reached the 1000th genome milestone. Knowledge about species genomics can contribute to conservation efforts that are mitigating the impacts of negative environmental change.
The new species descriptions contributed to the 722 new research papers released by the Museum over the past 12 months. These papers investigated topics from biodiversity to marsupial evolution building on our understanding of the natural world and helping find solutions for the planetary emergency.
This year, our digital collection containing 5.7 million specimens has been used not only by our scientists but by researchers around the globe to publish studies on topics from human health to extinction. Since 2015, the Data Portal has seen over 40 billion records downloaded over 770,000 download events and over 3,000 scientific papers cite our data.
Through the use of cutting-edge technology to certify that a species is new to science, protection of the specimens housed in our collections – boosted by our move of 28 million specimens to a bespoke collections, science and digitation centre at Thames Valley Science Park – and making more specimens digitally available to researchers globally, the Museum can play its part in reversing the decline in biodiversity we are seeing across the natural world.