Species of menacing dinosaurs, shiny beetles and an abundance of teeny invertebrates were new to science in 2021
Last year, researchers at the Natural History Museum in London (NHM) described 552 species new to science. The collection of plants and animals—both alive and extinct—included menacing dinosaurs, ancient invertebrates and an 90 colorful beetles, Ashley Strickland reports for CNN.
The museum added six new dinosaur species to its menagerie, including two carnivorous species called spinosaurids, which had T. rex-like bodies with giant crocodile heads when they walked the Earth millions of years ago. The towering dinos were known as the “riverbank hunter” and the other as a “hell heron,” Patrick Pester reports for Live Science.
“Although we’ve known about the UK’s dinosaur heritage for over 150 years, the application of new techniques and new data from around the world is helping us to uncover a hidden diversity of British dinosaurs,” Susannah Maidment, a paleobiologist at the Museum says in a press release. “These specimens are parts of a vast palaeobiological jigsaw puzzle that allows us to understand environments of the past and how they changed over time.”
Museum scientists also identified smaller, ancient organisms from the dinosaurs’ time. Their list includes fossilized moss, animals and algae, as well as spiders trapped in amber. They described a vegetarian relative of crocodiles, and two new mammals—a “Jurassic mouse” that skittered around dinosaurs 166 million years ago in Scotland and a group of rodents that lived in the Caribbean, according to the press release.
Of the 552 new species, more than half are tiny, aquatic crustaceans called copepods. They are critical in freshwater and ocean food webs since they feast on plankton, while other critters like small fish munch on the copepods. By trapping carbon in the deep sea when they die, they also serve as one of the ocean’s most important carbon sinks, Patrick Greenfield reports for the Guardian.
Since scientists couldn’t travel to other museums and field sites due to the pandemic, they turned to their existing collections of specimens. Marine biologists Claude and Francoise Monniot preserved every copepod species they found over six decades of field work, which is how NMH scientists ended up with so many. Biologists Geoff Boxshall and Il-Hoi Kim spent endless hours identifying 291 copepod species from the preserved specimens.
“The huge Monniot collection was made available to Il-Hoi Kim and myself, and as we are both recently retired, we theoretically had time to finally go through it. However, the collection was so enormous it was somewhat daunting—but then Covid-19 happened,” Boxshall says. “Completing the series of papers became my lockdown project when I was unable to enter the Museum.”
Looking back at older specimens proved to be a goldmine for NHM scientists. For example, a specimen of Mecopoda simonodoi, a bush cricket from Singapore, had been in the museum since 1984 but was just described last year, the Guardian reports.
NHM scientists also identified 90 beetles, 52 wasps, 13 moths, eight algae, seven crabs and six parasitic worms, as well as five plants. The list also has 10 new reptiles and amphibians, including a modern snake called Joseph’s racer, which was discovered with the help of a 185-year-old painting.
Rasha Aridi is a science journalist based in Richmond, Virginia. She has written for Science magazine and Science News for Students. You can find her portfolio at rashaaridi.com.