T. Rex Leech
There’s a new leech king of the jungle.
Puzzling scientists from the start, the up-to-three-inch-long (about seven-centimeter-long) bloodsucker has large teeth, like its dinosaur namesake Tyrannosaurus rex.
The T. rex leech uses its teeth to saw into the tissues of mammals’ orifices, including eyes, urethras, rectums, and vaginas. What’s more, the newfound critter’s naughty bits are rather small.
Most leech genitalia account for large proportions of their bodies, which “makes sense, because your reproductive success is important,” he said. But for a reason still unknown, the new species’ genitalia are only about half a millimeter long—smaller than their nerve cords and only a tenth the size of most leech privates.
“We didn’t say the large teeth were compensating for that, but it did come to mind,” he quipped.
T. Rex Leech Shakes Up Family Tree
The leech was first recognized from a specimen plucked from the nose of a girl in Peru’s central Chanchamayo Province in 2007. A local doctor sent the specimen to colleagues, who were unable to place the toothy predator into established leech families.
After two years of field research, the team discovered the leech belongs to a globally scattered group of leeches that all suck on mammalian mucus membranes.
This relationship, which shakes up the leech family tree, suggests that the mammal-loving leeches’ common ancestor probably lived during the late Jurassic period (199.6 million to 145.5 million years ago), when the continents were lumped together into a single landmass called Pangaea.
Although the T. rex leech—which people encounter while swimming in rivers and lakes—usually isn’t deadly, it can stay in a person’s body forweeks, and could cause choking.
T. Rex Leech May Save Lives
Ironically, the ferocious leech may one day help people.
Medicinal leeches have been used for more than a century for various medical therapies. Finding a new leech helps scientists better understand the molecules that make leech saliva so beneficial.
The discovery of the presumably rare leech also highlights how species can be lost to the “incredible threat” that is Amazon deforestation.
“As Douglas Adams would say: Do we want a planet that is only full of panda bears and pine trees?” he said. “The loss of any species is going to make this planet colder and lonelier.”
For these reasons and more, the bizarre bloodsucker is a pick for one of the oddest new species of 2010.
New Purple Octopus?
An unidentified purple octopus is one of 11 potentially new species found this month during a deep-sea expedition off Canada’s Atlantic coast.
The 20-day expedition aimed to uncover relationships between cold-water coral and other bottom-dwelling creatures in a pristine yet “alien” environment.
This tube-nosed fruit bat—which became a Web sensation as “Yoda bat”—is just one of the roughly 200 species encountered during two scientific expeditions to Papua New Guinea in 2009, scientists announced in October.
Though seen on previous expeditions, the bat has yet to be formally documented as a new species, or even named. Like other fruit bats, though, it disperses seeds from the fruit in its diet, perhaps making the flying mammal crucial to its tropical rain forest ecosystem.
Boasting a tail three times the length of its head, the newly described long-tailed slug is found only in the high mountains of the Malaysian part of Borneo, scientists said in April.
The new species shoots its mate with “love darts” made of calcium carbonate and spiked with hormones—hence its nickname: ninja slug. Scientists believe this Cupid-like behavior may increase reproductive success.
New Snub-Nosed Monkey Discovered, Eaten
Myanmar species sneezes uncontrollably when it rains, experts say.
A new monkey species in Myanmar is so snub-nosed that rainfall is said to makes it sneeze—but that’s apparently the least of problems.
The only scientifically observed specimen (pictured above) had been killed by local hunters the time researchers found it—and was eaten soon after. But local demand for monkey meat is only one reason the new species is already considered endangered.
Scientists first learned of “Snubby”—as they nicknamed the species—from hunters in the remote, mountainous Kachin state in early 2010.
The hunters spoke of R. strykeri’s fleshy lips, upturned nose, and odd respiratory issue: Rain falling into the monkeys’ noses possibly causes the animals to sneeze, so they often spend soggy days with their heads tucked between their knees.
“Hunters hunt them more often in the rainy season, because they are much easier to locate—normally they’re pretty quiet.”
Other snub-nosed monkey species are known from China and Vietnam, but R. strykeri is the first known species in Myanmar (Burma). Ranging across about a hundred square miles (270 square kilometers), the new species is also distinguished by its wispy white beard and ear tufts as well as its relatively long tail.
New Snub-Nosed Monkey Already Endangered
Generally preferring bear meat, the local hunters don’t usually target the snub-nosed monkey. But when a hunter comes across a monkey and there’s nothing more delicious, he will shoot it.
The bush-meat trade is just one of the pressures facing R. strykeri.
Chinese logging companies, for example, are encroaching on the new snub-nosed monkey’s habitat. And with logging comes more than habitat destruction.
As trees are extracted, so are the roots that anchor soil to steep mountains, leading to increased landslide risks. And as logging camps proliferate, so do guns, traps, and demand for bush meat.
Based on talks with the Lisu hunters, scientists estimate that only about 300 of these monkeys remain—few enough to qualify R. strykeri for “critically endangered” status on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species.
Wood-Eating Catfish … Eating Wood
new species of armored, wood-eating catfish (pictured underwater) found in the Amazon rain forest feeds on a fallen tree in the Santa Ana River in Peru.
Other so-called suckermouth armored catfish species use their unique teeth to scrape organic material from the surfaces of submerged wood. But the new, as yet unnamed, species is among the dozen or so catfish species known to actually ingest wood.
Still, wood-eating catfish are largely unable to digest wood. Only associated organic material—such as algae, microscopic plants, animals, and other debris—gets absorbed into their bodies. The wood itself passes through the fish and is expelled as waste.
The fish pass wood through their guts in less than four hours, which is incredibly fast for an animal that supposedly digests wood. People think they must have an amazing consortium of microbes in their guts to help the fish digest wood, but that isn’t really what has been found. The amazing microbes are in the river, on the wood itself.
The Simpsons Toad
Nosing around for “lost” amphibian species in western Colombia, scientists stumbled across three entirely new species—including this beaked toad. “Its long, pointy, snoutlike nose reminds me of the nefarious villain Mr. Burns from The Simpsons television series.
The 0.7-inch-long (2-centimeter-long) toad is easily one of the strangest amphibians ever seen.
The toad also has an odd reproductive habit: skipping the tadpole stage. Females lay eggs on the rain forest floor that hatch into fully formed toadlets.
You could call it the surprise du jour: A popular food on Vietnamese menus has turned out to be a lizard previously unknown to science, scientists say.
What’s more, the newfound Leiolepis ngovantrii is no run-of-the-mill reptile—the all-female species reproduces via cloning, without the need for male lizards.
Single-gender lizards aren’t that much of an oddity: About one percent of lizards can reproduce by parthenogenesis, meaning the females spontaneously ovulate and clone themselves to produce offspring with the same genetic blueprint.
“The Vietnamese have been eating these for time on end. In this part of the Mekong Delta [in southeastern Vietnam], restaurants have been serving this undescribed species.”
Wild Lizard Chase
It was found that live lizards were for sale in a restaurant in Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province. In Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
The lizards belonged to the Leiolepis genus, in which males and females in lizards have distinct color differences.
Fortunately other area restaurants had the lizards on offer, and local schoolchildren helped gather more from the wild. Almost 70 of the lizards were examined — and all turned out to be females.
Who’s Your (Lizard) Daddy?
The newfound reptile also had rows of enlarged scales on its arms as well as lamellae—bone layers—under its toes that set it apart from other species.
The species is probably a hybrid from maternal and paternal lines of two related lizard species, a phenomenon that can occur in transition zones between two habitats. For instance, the new lizard’s home, the Binh Chau-Phuoc Buu Nature Reserve, sits between scrub woodland and coastal sand dunes.
So species that do really well in one habitat or the other will occasionally get together and reproduce to form a hybrid.
Genetic tests of the new lizard’s mitochondrial DNA identified its maternal species as L. guttata. Because this type of DNA is passed down only through females, the paternal species isn’t yet known.
New Reptile May Be in Hot Water
The newly discovered hybrid species may already be at a disadvantage — even though it doesn’t seem to be rare in the wild.
For instance, some scientists suggest that hybrid species are more prone to extinction because they don’t produce much genetic diversity from generation to generation.
Genetic diversity keeps a species viable and healthy in the long term.
“At least in terms of lizards, most that are unisexual species—when compared to the lineages of other lizards—have not been around very long,” Because the lizards don’t combine genes during mating, genetic changes arise by random mutations—which are at least as likely to be detrimental as beneficial.
Lizard Hybrid Hardy as a Mule?
For instance, a hybrid’s cells may be more genetically diverse than those of nonhybrids, because hybrids carry genes from each of their parent species. This might mean that the animals are tougher and more adaptable. For instance, the mules—crosses between horses and donkeys—”are sterile, but they are really good robust animals that are in some ways a preferred work animal even though they can’t reproduce.”
“So what you get in the unisexual lizards is a mule that can clone itself.”
Squid? Worm? Initially, this new species—with bristle-based “paddles” for swimming and tentacles on its head—so perplexed were researchers that they threw in the towel and simply called it squidworm.
Found via remotely operated vehicle about 1.7 miles (2.8 kilometers) under the Celebes Sea, the four-inch-long (ten-centimeter-long) creature turned out to be the first member of a new family in the Polychaeta class of segmented worms.
Using its fins to walk, rather than swim, along the ocean floor in an undated picture, the pink handfish is one of nine newly named species described in a recent scientific review of the handfish family.
Only four specimens of the elusive four-inch (ten-centimeter) pink handfish have ever been found, and all of those were collected from areas around the city of Hobart, on the Australian island of Tasmania.
Though no one has spotted a living pink handfish since 1999, it’s taken till now for scientists to formally identify it as a unique species.
The new-species determinations were made based on a number of factors, including number of vertebrae and fin rays, coloration, the presence of scales and spines, and proportional body measurements.
All of the world’s 14 known species of handfish are found only in shallow, coastal waters off southeastern Australia.
Even among the previously known species, the fish are poorly studied, and little is known about their biology or behavior.