The legless lizard is a perfect example of why you don’t have to travel to remote jungles in isolated countries to discover new species. Four new types of legless lizard were discovered in one of the most populated places on the planet. Scientists from California set traps near Los Angeles Airport and other industrial areas in the San Joaquin Valley in the hopes of ambushing elusive new creatures.
They succeeded in uncovering four unique specimens known as “glass lizards” which they named after four well-known Berkeley scientists (Grinnelli, Campi, Alexandrae, and Stebbinsi). What are the major differences between legless lizards and their obvious, most commonly mistaken relatives, snakes? Glass lizards get their name because they are brittle enough to detach their tails in an emergency. Believe it or not, these reptiles are descendants of the four-legged lizards we all know. Snakes, on the other hand, actually evolved from four-legged snakes that are incredibly rare. More subtle traits include eyelids, which snakes do not have (not like ours, at least), and an inflexible jaw that cannot unhinge the way a snake’s can.
If there was ever a vote on nature’s most perfect creatures, sharks would be in the final category of that contest. These remarkable animals are perfectly suited to their environment as their streamlined bodies move through water with ease, together with a variety of evolutionary advantages such as sonar, incredibly powerful scent glands, large muscular bodies, and rows and rows of treacherous teeth at their disposal. It is hard to think of anything else they could possibly excel at. Well, it’s time to add walking to that list. The epaulette, discovered in Indonesia, uses its fins to walk across the ocean floor in a wiggling pattern like an underwater salamander. This particular genus, Hemiscyllium halmahera, is special due to its unique coloring. Its brown body is covered in dark, polygonal spots that vary greatly from its relatives. Even more important to scientists is that this is not a particularly shy fish—the epaulette is a lively, vibrant animal. If a predator that makes so little attempt to hide itself can remain undiscovered for so long, this lends enthusiasm toward finding more species in the reefs of Indonesia.
It is rare to discover a new mammal of any kind, and it is even rarer to discover a carnivorous mammal in the Western Hemisphere. The last recorded finding was in 2010 in Madagascar when a new type of mongoose-like creature was discovered. Previously, a Colombian weasel was discovered in 1978. Needless to say, it’s kind of a big deal. Even more impressive is that this new species is incredibly diverse. Scientists making the discovery believe there may be up to four separate subspecies. Completely unheard of, Kristofer Helgen, the researcher who made the discovery, believes this may be the last time in our history such an event occurs. The new animal, called an olinguito, lives in the cloud forests of the Andes in Ecuador and Colombia. The name derives from their relatives, the olingos, with the Spanish suffix “-ito,” meaning “little,” added in reference to their smaller size. Olinguitos are almost identical to olingos, to the degree that they have been mislabeled for years as the same species. Due to their secluded and obfuscated environment, it was difficult for explorers to find the tiny creatures amid the dense fog of the upper rain forest. They may share their name with olingos, but they should not be considered the same species by any stretch of the imagination. The olinguito only shares about 90 percent of its DNA with olingos, compared to humans who share 95 percent of our DNA with chimpanzees.
Papua New Guinea is a hotbed of evolutionary discoveries. The world’s smallest vertebrate was discovered recently in the form of the Paedophryne amauensis species. Three new frog discoveries (Oreophryne cameroni, Oreophryne parkopanorum, and Oreophryne gagneorum) brings the number of species in this genus up to seven, each measuring only 20 millimeters (0.8 in). Estimates predict there are still at least a dozen more specimens to be discovered from the region because large portions of this terrain have yet to be surveyed. More than just the discovery of one new species, an entire new ecosystem is being uncovered.
The lyre sponge (Chondrocladia lyra) also referred to as the harp sponge, due to its shape that resembles a harp, is a little bit different and a little more creepy than your average sponge. It has continued to prove the lengths to which nature will go to survive in inhospitable conditions, and it doesn’t get much more inhospitable than 3,000 meters (10,000 ft) below the ocean’s surface. The lyre sponge is a candelabra-shaped, carnivorous animal that attaches itself to the ocean floor. Long, finger-like extensions protrude from its veins which can vary in number from two up to six. Small barbs on the “fingers” snare passing fish, which are encased in a membrane and digested. To make things a little creepier, bulbs at the ends of these protrusions contain packets of sperm which are released into the current and absorbed by nearby sponges, which swell after fertilization. It has been less than two decades since scientists first discovered carnivorous sponges. Since then, new species are being uncovered regularly.