HOW TO DISCOVER A NEW SPECIES (It’s Easier Than You Think)

WHAT: Discover a New Species

Half a million years ago, Homo Sapiens learned to chat and make cool sounds. After that, we set merrily about slapping titles on everything around us. At the time, this was mostly plants and animals. Consequently, you’d think we pretty much had the name game squared away. However, we’re not even close. Nowadays, it seems biologists discover a brand new species every week.


Jonahs Mouse Lemur. Discovered in Madagascar
Jonah’s Mouse Lemur. Discovered in Madagascar in 2020. Photo Credit. Dominik Schüßler.


The vibranium fish
The Vibranium Fish AKA A fish called Wakanda. Discovered in 2019. Photo Credit: Luiz Rocha

For example, in 2019 alone there were 71 new plant and animal species discovered. These included lizards, spiders, bugs, fish, ants, sea slugs, and corals. Similarly, other new species discovered included flowers, endangered geckos, a fish called Wakanda, and many more hanging out in caves, woodlands, and ocean floors across different continents.

To date, the official plant and animal catalog contains around 2 million names. Depending on who you ask, estimated numbers of undiscovered species range anywhere between 5-12 million. Consequently, it’s thought that the number of identified lifeforms is eclipsed by a gazillion other nameless critters just waiting (or not) to be discovered.

scientists discover a new species of snake
Salazar’s pit viper. Discovered in India in 2020. Photo Credit: Zeeshan A. Mirza.


Scientists discover a new monkey
Popa langur. Discovered in 2020 in Myanmar. Photo Credit: Creative Commons


Imagine a new species out there promising the lucky finder a place in history? But surely, to discover a new species would require millions in funding. You’d need a team of scientists, and a journey to the ends of the earth, right? Wrong.


The depths of the Amazon or Congo Basins, or the Venezuelan Tepui are awash with undiscovered species. However, identifying them, or rather, carrying out the exhaustive research required to confirm their anonymity, is very difficult. Even with the latest DNA barcoding gizmos, this type of research is an expensive, labor-intensive gamble.  However, for those that lack David Attenborough level support, there are still ways to discover a new species.

new species discovered
A “Squirreliger.” Recently discovered by photoshop.

Amazingly, it´s thought millions of these species have already been discovered. For example, in 2011, researchers estimated that a whopping 7.5 million uncatalogued creatures are to be found languishing in off-display museum collection cabinets around the world.

A small portion of the bird collection at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History

It´s reckoned to take around 20 years to get these creatures officially classified. However, many samples, submitted for inspection by Charles Darwin types are thought to have been collecting dust for over two centuries. Consequently, the simplest way to discover a new species may be to head for your local museum.

Firstly, get in contact. Secondly, request the samples and do some homework. After that, if you look hard enough you’ll likely come across a new species yet to be classified. After that, simply steal the glory from long-dead biologists who never heard back from the Museum’s taxonomy department.

Museum taxonomy department
Museum Taxonomy Department. Home to Thousands of Unnamed Species.  Photo Credit: Creative Commons

If all else fails, you could take a cue from the Hungarian scientists who used American Paddlefish sperm to fertilize Russian Sturgeon caviar eggs. As a result, they unwittingly created the all-new “Sturddlefish”.


scientists create a new species of fish 
The Sturddlefish, accidentally created by scientists in 2019. Photo Credit: Creative Commons

The Tambopata region of the Amazon and Costa Rica’s Corcovado National Park are believed to contain countless unknown species. However, journeying to the jungle to discover a new species can be brutal and costly. Museum research is much easier.

Likewise, unknown life forms have turned up in some highly unlikely, albeit thoroughly ordinary locations. In 2014, two mycologists purchased a packet of Porcini from a London grocery store. They opened it to discover a brand new species of mushroom. Marine biologist Dave Ebert has identified over 20 new shark species just by browsing fish markets in Asia.


That depends on your modus operandi. You can try to discover a new species in dusty cases in the purpose-built safety of a museum. Or, you can explore a shark-infested ocean floor, or a big cat, snake-infested jungle. Guess which is safer?


Each newly discovered species allows for greater, better-targeted efforts toward environmental preservation. Additionally, it serves as an important reminder of just how much we have yet to learn about this beautiful, diverse planet. Moreover, if you discover a new species, your name will live on forever(ish).


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