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article imageOp-Ed: 2015 — What a year for amazing animal and plant discoveries

By Megan Hamilton     Jan 1, 2016 in Environment
Nature is definitely amazing, and no matter how much we think we know about the beautiful world around us, we still continue to make even more fascinating plant and animal discoveries every year.
2015 is no different.
This year we found sneezing monkeys, a weird pill-bug that looks like a swimming tank, a snail that's so tiny it's dwarfed by the head of a match, and a giant carnivorous plant that traps insects with sticky hairs.
So let's meet some of these that share the planet with us.
1. The sneezing monkeys of Myanmar In the dialect of the local people, the monkey is known as mey nwoah, which means "monkey with an upturned face." A team of conservationists working for Fauna and Flora International, based in Cambridge, made the discovery in conjunction with the Myanmar Primate Conservation Program, BBC Cambridgeshire reports.
The scientists began trying to find this thickly-furred monkey after hunters reported seeing a monkey that didn't look like any of the other monkeys in the area. Once the scientists found it, they dubbed it Rhinopithecus strykeri, references monkeys of the snub-nosed genus, while Strykeri refers to the name of one of the project's supporters.
There are other species of snub-nosed monkeys found in parts of China and Vietnam, but there had never been reports of the long-armed primates in Myanmar. Until now.
So why are they called "sneezing monkeys?"
It's due to the fact that they have wide, upturned nostrils. When it rains, their noses fill with water, which makes them sneeze. The monkeys also have thick black fur and prominent lips.
All species of snub-nosed monkeys are considered endangered, and sneezing monkeys are considered critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), especially since Fauna and Flora estimates that there are less than 300 of these cute monkeys in the wild. The monkeys are especially under threat due to Myanmar's logging industry, BBC Cambridgeshire reports.
The local people informed the scientists who were working on the program that the monkeys were easy to locate because they could be heard sneezing whenever it rained. Which means that these little guys spend lots of rainy days sitting with their heads tucked between their knees to keep the rain out of those sensitive, upturned noses.
2. The butterfly that's named after Sir David Attenborough More formally known as Attenborough's black-eyed satyr, or Euptychia attenboroughi, this butterfly can be found in the upper Amazon basin of Venezuela, Colombia, and Brazil. It has a small territory and can only be found in a few sites within reasonable proximity of each other, Newsweek reports.
After locating and describing the butterfly, the researchers decided to dedicate it to Attenborough, who is widely known for writing and presenting BBC Natural History's Life series. Attenborough is also president of Butterfly Conservation.
"Although we are a large team from several countries from across four continents and speaking different languages, we have all been deeply influenced and inspired by Sir David's fascinating and informative documentaries," said Andrew Neild of London's Natural History Museum in a press release.
This beautiful species has eight bright eye spots, which it uses to startle potential predators.
3. Omura's whale. This discovery was truly nothing short of remarkable. Oh sure, there were old, dead, specimens of Omura's whale (Balaenoptera omurai), but no one had ever seen one of these whales alive, Mongabay reports.
This is the first-ever video of an Omura s whale.
This is the first-ever video of an Omura's whale.
YouTube screen grab New England Aquarium
In the 1970s, scientists originally classified several whales killed by the Japanese in the eastern Indian and western Pacific oceans as Bryde's whales. The specimens were between 33 and 38 feet and were considered smaller "pygmy" Bryde's whales, which normally measure about 45 feet long.
Then, in 2003, another team of researchers began examining DNA evidence from the eight whaling specimens, and one stranded animal, Mongabay notes. They concluded that the whales actually belonged to an unknown species that came to be called Omura's whale. Follow-up studies have identified other hunted or stranded animals as Omura's whales based on DNA and skeletal evidence.
But until recently, there hadn't been any first-hand observations of these elusive whales described in the scientific literature, and that means very little was known about their behavior, biology, or ecology. There had only been the barest minimum of unconfirmed sightings.
Then, in 2007 a team led by marine mammal biologist Salvatore Cerchio, who was with the Wildlife Conservation Society at the time, began studying cetaceans off of Madagascar's northwestern coast. In 2011, they began observing sundry small rorqual whales, which have deep grooves on their throats that can expand as they feed.
"At first, we thought they were Bryde's whales, an understandable mistake because of the similar size and habitat," Cerchio said in a statement.
In 2013 and 2014 the team moved to another study site, and this allowed them to make extensive observations of the whales. They were even able to take underwater photos and videos.
"When we clearly saw that the right jaw was white, and the left jaw was black, we knew that we were on to something very special," he said. Cerchio is currently with the New England Aquarium and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.
But the location threw the researchers off. The whales weren't supposed to be in this part of the Indian Ocean. Instead, they should be in the western Pacific, near Thailand and the Philippines, Cerchio said.
So they gathered skin biopsies from the whales and their DNA was tested by a lab at Northern Michigan University. It was found to match with that of the Omura's whale. The researchers published their findings in October 2015 in the journal Royal Society Open Science.
The researchers reported in the paper that they spotted these whales 44 times between 2011 and 2014, and noted that they frequently showed up in "loose aggregations" of as many as six animals spaced a few hundred meters apart.
Cerchio and his team were able to watch the whales feeding on zooplankton, as well as breaching and defecating. They recorded vocalizations of the Omura's whale and collected photographic evidence identifying 25 individuals. They also observed four mother whales with young calves, suggesting that the area may be a calving ground. Some evidence also suggests the whales may live there year-round, Mongabay reports.
The team had planned to continue observing the whales in northwestern Madagascar in November.
Because sightings of these whales are rare, little is known about them. That includes their conservation status. The researchers surmise in their paper that because the whales live in a shallow-water habitat, they are likely to become tangled in fishing gear. They also voiced concerns that because the Omura's whale uses low-frequency communications, they may be vulnerable to noise pollution, especially loud hydrocarbon exploration and production, which is going on in their home waters. And more is planned for the future.
4. The world's tiniest snail In September, scientists discovered what was then the world's itty-bittyest snail in China and named it Angustopila dominikae. It measured a non-whopping 0.88 millimeters (about 0.03 inches), Newsweek reports. Then scientists up and did it again in November, discovering an even itty-bittier snail, this time in Borneo. This tiny creature measures 0.5 to 0.6 millimeters, or 0.02 inches wide. Which is about the thickness of five human hairs placed next to each other. The scientists aptly dubbed it Acmella nana, with nanus being the Latin word for dwarf.
Seven new hypselostomatid species from China  including some of the world’s smallest land snails
Seven new hypselostomatid species from China, including some of the world’s smallest land snails
B. Páll-Gergely and N. Szpisjak
5. The Los Angeles pill bug. College students and their professor from Loyola Marymount University were on a field trip to a seaside park not quite a mile from the Port of Los Angeles, and while they were there they discovered a bizarre new species of aquatic pill bug, colloquially known as a roly-poly.
The students found the critter on the arm of a sea star.
Their professor, Dean Pentcheff, of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, said as soon as they saw the lumpy bumpy creature, they knew it was something different.
So they took their tiny cargo--the little pill bug is about the size of a BB, or about 4.5 millimeters--back to the museum, where other scientists helped identify it by using a scanning electron microscope. It was too small to use a regular microscope, Pentcheff said.
They named the new species Exosphaeroma pentcheffi (after Pentcheff,of course). The critter is easily recognizable because it has a series of raised, peg-like protrusion on its back, and because of its tail-like uropod, which it uses for swimming.
"It is amazing to think that you can discover a new species in one of the most urban places in the world like the Port of Los Angeles," said Adam Wall, a scientist at the museum, and the lead author of the study describing the species, which was published in the journal ZooKeys.
Although we call them bugs, pill bugs are actually crustaceans, and the ones most of us are familiar with actually have gills. That's why they prefer moist environments such as leaf litter, Newsweek notes.
6. The magnificent sundew Digital Journalist Karen Graham notes that this elegant-looking plant was posted on Facebook by an amateur botanist. When he did that, it led to the discovery of a new species.
Mongabay reports he had taken the photo on a mountain top in Minas Gerais, southeastern Brazil. Experts realized the plant was a sundew and named it Drosera magnifica, meaning "magnificent sundew." They described it as the second-largest carnivorous plant in the Americas, and it's "the first plant species to be recorded as being discovered through photographs on a social network," the authors wrote in a paper that was published in the journal Phytotaxa.
7. The Ninja lanternshark This little jet-black shark hangs around in the depths of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Central America. It uses that dark skin to hide, but strangely, it can also glow in the dark, Digital Journal reports. The shark was recently discovered by researchers at the Pacific Shark Research Center, in Moss Landing, California.
Three views of this amazing shark.
Three views of this amazing shark.
YouTube screen grab Victoria Elena Vásquez, David A. Ebert, Douglas J. Long
Glowing in the dark might seem like a good way to get noticed by hungry predators, but researcher Vicky Vásquez says this probably works well for the little shark, which is just 18 inches long. She noted that lanternsharks glow just enough to hide their shadows and it's believed this works as camouflage.
Vásquez is helping her colleague, professor Dave Ebert, in identifying the "lost sharks" that haven't been described.
"About 20 percent of all shark species have been discovered in just the last 10 years," Ebert told Hakai Magazine. My whole research is looking for 'lost sharks.'"
The discovery of this unusual shark shows there are still vast numbers of species still waiting to be described.
Perhaps Charles Darwin, in his book The Origin of Species put it best:
"There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com
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