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The focus on sex also leaves out organisms that reproduce asexually. Other definitions consider ancestry, though where the lines should be drawn is unclear – are we the same species as our water-dwelling ancestors? Further definitions focus on ecology, geography and physiology.
This Q&A originally appeared in BBC Wildlife Magazine, and was answered by Leoma Williams.
This is impossible to answer precisely. New species appear all the time and can go extinct before they’ve even been described, and estimates as to the rates of extinction very enormously. One approach to working it out would be to first take the yearly ‘natural extinction rate’ – the rate at which species would go extinct if we humans weren’t around. This is often stated as one per million (or 0.00001%) per year – but again, opinion on this varies.
Experts now believe that current rates of extinction have soared to between 1,000 and 10,000 times this natural rate. So, take the natural rate as one per million and that brings current rates to between 0.01 and 0.1% per year. There are said to be 1.6 million described species on our planet, but some experts believe there could be as many as 100 million. So, work out the worse- case scenario maths and the daily rate of extinction comes in at 273 species per day.
We are said to be in the midst of a sixth extinction. Unlike previous mass extinction events, which were the result of climatic shifts, geological activity and a very large asteroid, responsibility for the current losses is down to us.
This Q&A originally appeared in BBC Wildlife Magazine, and was answered by Sarah McPherson.
A tropical tree in the ylang-ylang forest, this species was the first addition to the 2022 new species list by the scientists at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (RGB Kew), who were working with the National Herbarium of Cameroon. It is four metres tall, with bunches of large and glossy yellow-green flowers on its trunk, and was collected by RGB Kew scientist Lorna MacKinnon.
U. dicaprio was found in the Ebo Forest, which is one of the largest intact rainforests in Cameroon and makes up half of the Yabassi Kew Biodiversity Area. It has been relatively unknown to botanical science, and scientists have been working to document its array of species. The forest is home to the world’s only known chimps to both crack nuts and fish for termites, and is the ancestral home of several local communities.
The species was named in honour of the actor and environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio, who used social media in February 2020 to call for a logging concession in Ebo Forest to be revoked.
“We very much appreciated the support Leo gave us in campaigning to protect Ebo last year,” says Dr Martin Cheek, senior researcher in RBG Kew’s Africa team. “So it seemed fitting to honour him in this way, naming a species unique only to this forest, after him. Had the logging concession gone ahead, we would have likely lost this species to timber extraction and slash and burn agriculture that usually follows logging concessions.”
U. dicaprio is already assessed in the paper as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List. Its forest habitat is unprotected and remains under threat from logging, conversion to plantation and mining.
In 2021, RBG Kew and their partners named approximately 205 plants and fungi from Africa, Asia, the Americas and even in the UK.
Read the full paper in PeerJ.
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Although scientists had been working at a peat swamp field site for a number of years, they were taken aback when in 2021, there was a mass flowering event and the forest was filled with colourful flowers and amazing smells. It was during this event that they noticed that a particular tree had unusual flowers, that weren’t described anywhere, and by observing the flowers and the following fruits, they were able to confirm that it was a species new to science.
The Disepalum rawagambut is the first peat swamp tree to be described since the early 1960s, as there have not been many plant-focused studies in this habitat since. The scientists involved are working to study all the peat swamp trees on their site, ranging from the scents emitted by flowers, the properties of the wood and leaves, and ecological information such as whether the trees are able to survive droughts or flooding.
It’s thought that there are between 300 and 350 species of trees in peat swamp forests across Southeast Asia, and that the number is so high because the freshwater wetlands create a number of microhabitats that can support a range of species.
Read the paper in Phytotaxa.
A whole new genus of tarantula was recently found and described from Thailand. It had been found by JoCho Sippawat (also known as Zongtum Sippawat), a nationally known wildlife YouTuber with over 2.5 million subscribers, who then went on to collaborate with arachnologists Dr. Narin Chomphuphuang and Chaowalit Songsangchote to describe and name the species.
Whilst it was known that tarantulas in Southeast Asia could be either terrestrial or arboreal, this is the first case of a species to be found on only one type of tree. The Taksinus bambus tarantula lives inside the culm (shoot or stalk) of bamboo. As the tarantula cannot actually make a hole into the bamboo itself, it uses the holes made by other invertebrates, small mammals or the natural process that cause bamboo cracking.
“We examined all of the trees in the area where the species was discovered. This species is unique because it is associated with bamboo, and we have never observed this tarantula species in any other plant,” says Dr Chomphuphuang. “Bamboo is important to this tarantula, not only in terms of lifestyle but also because it can only be found in high hill forests in the northern part of Thailand, at an elevation of about 1,000 m. It is not an exaggeration to say that they are now Thailand’s rarest tarantulas.”
The genus name of “Taksinus” is in honour of the Thai king Taksin the Great (1734-1782), who had previously been named Phraya Tak when he was the governor of the Tak province, where this spider was found.
Read the full paper in ZooKeys.