Nearly 1,000 new species were discovered in 2023 by scientists at London’s Natural History Museum and the California Academy of Sciences, proving that Earth is still home to many unexplored wonders.
The discoveries were made during a year that marks the 50th anniversary of the US Endangered Species Act, which offers protections for threatened plants and animals and has helped save hundreds of species, according to Scott Sampson, California Academy of Sciences executive director.
“Yet a million more species remain imperiled due to human-driven activities like habitat destruction, climate change, and pollution,” Sampson said in a statement. “We must document the Earth’s living diversity so that we can work to protect it, and the California Academy of Sciences is honored to take part in this critical global effort.”
The diverse list of 968 new species includes previously unknown dinosaurs and extinct creatures, beetles, moths, sea slugs, geckos, fish, frogs, spiders, plants, fungi, worms and a legless skink.
Scientists will likely recall 2023 as the year of the wasp. Of the 815 new species described by Natural History Museum researchers this year, 619 of them were different types of pollinating, predatory and parasitic wasps.
The extraordinary number of discoveries was boosted by the work of Dr. John Noyes and Christer Hansson, scientific associates at the Natural History Museum, who are conducting ongoing research to uncover bees, ants and wasps in Costa Rica.
“It is important to keep describing new species because many will have a profound influence on their environment and without knowing what to call them, we cannot convey any information about them,” Noyes said.
Some of the new wasp species showcase a variety of metallic hues, including blue, purple and orange. As a fan of “Doctor Who” and a nod to the British television series marking its 60th year in 2023, Noyes named a genus of wasp after the show’s fictional mutant villains called the Daleks and their creator.
And while wasps may seem like nuisances armed with stingers, the insects help control populations of pests that can plague agricultural crops.
“In the past 60 years or so, three species have been incredibly important. One in preventing the possible starvation of up to 300 million people in Africa, a second preventing the rainforest from destruction in Thailand, and another the collapse of the economy of Togo,” Noyes said.
A legless lizard
A new species of legless lizard was found slithering along the slopes of Serra da Neve, the second-tallest mountain in Angola. Legless lizards, known as skinks, resemble snakes, hiding among leaves on the forest floor to hunt for insects and other small prey.
Skinks differ from snakes in that they have external ear openings and movable eyelids, according to the Virginia Zoo.
While most skinks are uniform in color, the newly described Acontias mukwando has a pink ring around its neck.
Serra da Neve provides a unique ecosystem to the unusual plants and animals that only are found living on the isolated peak. The mountain is on the northern edge of the Namib Desert and has a cool, humid environment.
“Each new species we describe from this mountain — and others like it — is evidence that places like these deserve some sort of conservation consideration,” Academy of Sciences research associate Aaron Bauer said in a statement. “We’re still finding new species on these isolated ‘islands,’ which tells us it’s not too late for protection.”
Scientists from the National Polytechnic Institute in Durango, Mexico, worked with Academy of Sciences researchers to study a rare succulent in the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range.
The plant, which grows out of the side of cliffs, has long been known to the local O’dam Indigenous community. The O’dam people refer to the plant with bald leaves and stems as da’npakal, which means bald, naked or slippery in their language.
Researchers have named the succulent Pachyphytum odam to maintain the connection between the plant and the community living on the land where it grows.
Meanwhile, scientists solved a case of mistaken identity for a flowering plant in Costa Rica. For more than 150 years, the plant was thought to belong to a similar but separate species in Mexico.
The newly identified plant, Stenostephanus purpureus, is different from a plant called Stenostephanus silvaticus found in Mexico. The flowers are different colors, and the Costa Rican plant is missing a flat petal often called a landing pad for butterflies and other insects as they collect pollen. Instead, hummingbirds likely pollinated Stenostephanus purpureus.
“I never questioned the identification of the Costa Rican specimens, not until I did a side-by-side comparison with images of living plants from Mexico,” said Academy of Sciences researcher Ricardo Kriebel in a statement. “The differences between the two are subtle when you’re working with dead, dry specimens from collections.”
A new look into the past
Natural History Museum researchers identified four new species of extinct birds by studying fossils, including those that lived during the time of dinosaurs. One of the most intriguing discoveries of the year was Kumimanu fordycei, the largest penguin that ever existed on Earth. The flightless birds lived 60 million years ago and weighed an estimated 330 pounds (150 kilograms).
A previously unknown type of armored dinosaur species was also found on the Isle of Wight. Known as Dinosaur Island, the Isle of Wight is considered one of the best places to find dinosaur fossils in the United Kingdom.
The ankylosaur, which lived on the island 140 million years ago, was named Vectipelta barretti in honor of Natural History Museum professor Paul Barrett.
“Paul is incredibly influential in our discipline,” said Dr. Susannah Maidment, a paleontologist at the museum who studied the new species, in a statement. “He is incredibly high profile and has contributed an enormous amount to the field. But he’s also had an absolutely enormous influence on all of our careers, and we wanted to thank him for that. So we decided to name a small, slow-moving, spikey organism after him.”
Researchers also named an ancient fungus after beloved children’s book author and illustrator Beatrix Potter. The 400-million-year-old Potteromyces asteroxylicola, found infecting the roots of fossilized plants, is the earliest known disease-causing fungus. In addition to writing the Peter Rabbit books, Potter was an avid mycologist who studied and created detailed depictions of fungi.