Scientists working for the Natural History Museum in London have accounted for the existence of some 552 newly identified species over the course of the last calendar year. The museum announces how many species its scientific research has established most years and it seems that 2021 was a particularly bountiful year. According to the museum, last year’s new finds included a now extinct but previously undiscovered dinosaur that is quite unlike any other similar species known to mankind. Among some of the other discoveries are worms that have never been seen before that were found to be living in the most remote environments on the planet.
Other spectacular discoveries include beetles with an iridescent jewel-like quality plus a snake that was identified only last year thanks to the information stored about it in a painting that dates back to the middle of the nineteenth century. According to the museum, every new discovery is a part of a jigsaw puzzle, single pieces of information that, when put together, form a larger picture. A statement issued by the museum said that this picture of life on the planet allows scientists to better understand both the past and the present with information that could be crucial for the survival of us all.
The Director of Science at the Natural History Museum, Dr Tim Littlewood, said that finding out more about anything in the natural world for the first time is at the very essence of human discovery. “Discovering new species is what we do,” he said. Dr Littlewood went on to add that it was a question of institutional – as well as personal – pride that the museum continues to be at the forefront of finding, describing and naming newly identified species. “This is especially [important]… at a time when we are losing so many lifeforms,” he added.
According to the museum, the discoveries are spread out across the entire spectrum of known lifeforms. There are some of the tiniest invertebrates to have ever been identified swimming in the sea as well as huge predators that used to roam the Earth millions of years ago among the 500 or so. One of the most eye-catching discoveries of the past twelve months was undoubtedly the carnivorous dinosaur known as a spinosaur. A pair of fossilised remains of these previously undiscovered reptiles were found on the Isle of Wight by a PhD student named Jeremy Lockwood last year. However, the spinosaurs were only an example of the six new dinosaurs species to have been described to science by museum workers. Indeed, four of them were found in the UK.
“It has been an encouraging year for the discovery of new dinosaur species,” said Dr Susannah Maidment. A researcher and curator at the museum, Maidment was involved in describing some of the exciting new dinosaur finds. “Although science has known about the heritage of the UK’s dinosaur species for well over a century, new methods and access to the latest global data is now assisting our work,” she said. According to her, the updated methods are now helping museum scientists to more fully uncover a previously hidden diversity among dinosaurs in the British Isles.
However, the diversity of species was not restricted to extinct dinosaurs alone. Newly identified species made by the Natural History Museum last year also included some 52 species of wasp. There again, 13 moths were also included as a part of the total. In all, seven species of crab, six newly identified fly species and no fewer than five amphipods were part of the list of discoveries for 2021. It was not just animal life that featured either. Among the 552 newly identified species were five newly discovered plants from eastern Africa. Eight new species of algae were also found by museum scientists.
Among the most startling statistics the annual review of species discovery threw up was the number of copepods that had been found. These small, shrimp-like creatures were discovered in abundance by museum research staff. Some 291 species of copepods were among the total, accounting for significantly more than half the haul of discoveries for the last year. Professor Geoff Boxshall spent much of 2021 looking for these parasitic life forms among the museum’s collection, often finding them in fish or invertebrates that were once their hosts.
According to the Natural History Museum, such an extensive list of discoveries is particularly pleasing given the pandemic restrictions the institution was working under for much of 2021. Even better, from their perspective, its discoveries over the course of the last twelve months were not solely related to newly discovered life forms, either extinct or living. This is because the museum also included a 600-gram meteorite among its most exciting discoveries for 2021. Meteorites of this size are vanishingly rare, especially ones that strike land. In February of last year, when the UK was under a national set of restrictions due to the pandemic emergency, a meteorite struck the UK in the Gloucestershire town of Winchcombe.
The discovery was made by locals after a large rock landed on a driveway in the town. Now referred to simply as the Winchcombe meteorite, this specimen has been officially classified as carbonaceous chondrites by scientists at the museum. It is one of only around 600 such approved meteorites to fall into this exclusive category. According to the museum, the rarity of such finds makes even rocks of this type approximate to something of a species in their own right. According to Dr Helena Bates, a researcher who helped to recover the Winchcombe meteorite for the museum, this is the first meteorite to fall – and be recovered – in the UK for over three decades.
About the author – Manuel Charr
Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.