Academy of Sciences scientists discovering new species on Earth

There is a planet, with some evidence of intelligent life, where the still-evolving inhabitants know only 10 percent of the species in their world.

That planet is Earth.

So for Earth Day 2011, which is Friday, here’s a warm-and-fuzzy story about some important creepy crawlers, as scientists from the California Academy of Sciences circle the globe and accomplish extraordinary things — none more dramatic than the discovery of new species.

Along with colleagues from many nations, the San Franciscans discovered 113 new species as part of the United Nations’ International Year of Biodiversity in 2010.

While it’s common knowledge that many species are endangered and others, such as the Tasmanian tiger and the Irish deer, have disappeared, it’s news to most people that new species are continually being found.

This is not science fiction about beings from other planets. They are very real and definitely of the Earth. In fact, they are stored in the academy’s underground collections and include 83 arthropods, 20 fish, four corals, two sea slugs, two plants, one reptile and one fossil.

They are not much to look at, but their significance is great.

“I would respectfully disagree with your aesthetic verdict; beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” a sea slug researcher said.

Local scientists made their finds on five continents (the Americas, Africa, Asia and Australia) and three oceans (Atlantic, Pacific and Indian), hiked through rainforests and dove inside submersibles, and looked everywhere from their own backyards near The City to the other side of the world (the Seychelles).

Senior curator Terrence M. Gosliner and Aquatic Biology Chairman John E. McCosker are two leading world figures in the effort to find creatures yet to be discovered.

They say finding new organisms is an essential part of the global fight against the disappearance of species. Gosliner, a sea slug specialist, and McCosker agree about the startling fact that scientists have only documented and described an estimated 10 percent of Earth’s species.

As they say, it’s hard to save a species when you don’t know that it exists. How do you estimate a percentage of an unknown whole? Hard to say.

Gosliner, who’s also dean of science and research collections at the academy, estimates the loss of species “has been accelerating in the past 150 years due to human activity, with extinction rates estimated to be thousands of times greater than average. Discovery of new species are essential to characterizing our planet’s ecosystems before they disappear forever.”

Biodiversity simply means healthy ecosystems, and those in turn “are crucial to human health and economic well-being,” academy scientists say.

How do you know that an organism you are examining is of a new species? If it’s a fish, you try to look it up in the catalogue of sea life, said Bill Eschmeyer, the academy’s curator emeritus. This huge database is a matter of pride, keeping information about species by family/subfamily, contents of ichthyological collections and of ichthyological journals up to date, and made available online.

Leading the visitor through the bulky, complex catalogue, McCosker said, “As you can see, it requires a lot of labor to convince one’s colleagues that the description of a new species is valid, and the manuscript has to be reviewed and approved by a panel of peers before it is published.”

Over the years, McCosker has discovered and named 105 species, from the 1970 Ethadophis to last year’s Ophichthus tomioi.

“Fish have been the love of my life, and every one has a different story,” he said.

Gosliner’s many discoveries are mostly in gastropod mollusks, particularly the Opisthobranchia (nudibranchs and other sea slugs), such as Flabellina goddardi in Santa Barbara and species in coral reefs from Africa to Hawaii.

Brian Fisher, the academy’s chairman of the Department of Entomology, focuses on ants, dealing with their 22,000 identified species. He has discovered 800 new ant species in Madagascar alone. Fisher gives great weight to ants.

“The collective weight of all the ants in the world is equal to the weight of all the world’s humans,” he said. “It’s a big subject with a big impact. That alone makes ants worthy of scientific study.”


Scientists’ grasp of planet evolves

When Terrence Gosliner and other scientists search for new species in tide pools, they occasionally make new discoveries — even though the sea slug population in the area has been well documented since the 1830s.

Such new information, said the senior curator at the California Academy of Sciences, helps researchers refine their approach to the pools.

“It is difficult,” Gosliner said, “if not impossible, to develop conservation strategies on the basis of incomplete knowledge.”

With global climate change, he said, mapping the changing distribution patterns of species on the California coast is vital. The research is essential to fulfilling Earth Day’s mission, promoting an awareness and appreciation for the planet’s natural environment.

“We already see signs of species moving their historical distributional limits northward as waters warm,” Gosliner said. “Studies such as the ones that led to the discovery of new species are important to document the pace and impact of climate change on our marine environment.”

Gosliner mentions the newly discovered Flabellina goddardi, which he classified, as an example. Marine biologist Jeff Goddard found the previously unidentified carnivorous 1.2-inch creature in Carpinteria State Park in 2008. Not long afterward, in the lab, the hermaphroditic colorful nudibranch laid a lacy egg mass, which hatched into tiny,
snail-like babies.

Sea slugs are often transparent, and the elaborate latticework of the egg mass is arranged in such a way to make sure all the embryos get enough oxygen.

Finding a new slug “right there under our noses,” Goddard said, is a reminder that “there are still many species, especially in the oceans — even ones in our backyard — that haven’t been described.”

A bug-eating sea slug found recently in Thailand represents a new species that behaves differently from its relatives. Such changes have great significance for the environment.

“On California’s mountains,” Gosliner said, “similar changes in distribution are occurring. Many species — beetles, mammals and birds among them — are now found 500 to 1,000 feet higher in elevation than they were just a few decades ago.”


Four decades and counting

Earth Day, intended to promote awareness of the environment, was first observed April 22, 1970, at the instigation of U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson. The Wisconsin Democrat held an environmental teach-in on that day.

The observance is now held by more than 175 countries. In 2009, the United Nations designated the date, which marks the beginning of spring in the Northern Hemisphere and autumn in the Southern Hemisphere, as International Mother Earth Day.

Educational entertainment

Events at the Academy of Sciences on and around Earth Day on Friday. All require admission ($19.95 to $29.95).

  • 6-10 p.m. Thursday (NightLife for ages 21-plus)
  • 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday (all ages)
  • 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday (all ages)

Earth Day programs

  • Q&A with artist Michael Bartalos: Gain insights into Bartalos’ artistic process and the sustainable inspiration behind “Handle with Care”
  • Family Nature Crafts Station: Stop by this self-service craft station to make a project inspired by Michael Bartalos’ artwork, and add your wish for planet Earth
  • Google Earth Explorations: See how scientists, researchers and everyday people use this innovative software to better understand and care for the planet
  • Climate Science and Solutions: Learn about the science behind climate change through this high-energy, accessible presentation by the Alliance for Climate Education
  • See Your Power: Find out exactly how much gas and electricity you use, and when, through PG&E’s SmartMeter See Your Power tour
  • “Fragile Planet”: Catch shows in the planetarium
  • Stalk Bicycles: Check out how a local company makes environmentally conscious custom bike frames from bamboo and recyclable materials
  • Save the frogs!: Learn what we can do to help fragile and threatened frog species and the ecosystems they rely on
  • Explore the Living Roof with Naturalists: Discover what birds and insects visit the Academy’s 2.5-acre living roof
  • California Spotlight: Dive into native flora and fauna in honor of Native Plant Week
  • Earth Day Storytime: Readings are at the Early Explorers Cove
  • Spring to Life: Exhibit continues through May 1, featuring chirping chicks and Egg Alley, an immersion display of eggs and nests from the research collections

Weekly programs

  • Coral Reef Dives: Daily at 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.
  • Explore the living roof with naturalists: Every Monday at 3 p.m.
  • Sharks and rays: Tuesdays and Thursdays at 1:30 p.m.

For more information, call (415) 379-8000 or visit

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