Thursday, February 26, 2015

Hiding in Plain Sight

In 2014, researchers at the California Academy of Sciences described 221 new species - only a portion of unique organisms that were discovered last year. Surprisingly, the majority of recently identified species are found in museum collections, not in the wild. Although many natural history museums struggle with a lack of money and curatorial staff, new technologies and a careful eye often reveal secrets hidden within specimen drawers. Researchers returning to the collections notice morphological differences or, increasingly, deviations within the organism's expected genome. With an average gap between novel species collection and identification of 21 years, there is still hope that discoveries can inform conservation efforts to protect habitats and ecosystems.

The following species are only the first to make headlines this year and they hail from natural history collections around the world:

Ruby Seadragon, Phyllopteryx dewysea 

Fig.1. The ruby seadragon, found in a museum collection (Credit: Western Australian Museum).

For the first time in 150 years, a new species of seadragon has been discovered. These small animals, closely related seahorses and pipefish, are found off the coast of southern Australia. While analyzing tissue from eight-year-old museum specimens, scientists at the University of California at San Diego expected DNA sequences to match either the leafy seadragon or the common seadragon. As co-author Greg Rouse of Scripps Oceanography and his colleagues found, the DNA matched neither species. After requesting access to the full specimen and photographs, the researchers realized they had found a new species. The new animal, a ruby seadragon (Phyllopteryx dewysea), has not yet been found in the wild, but three other specimens have been uncovered in museum collections.

Bush Cricket, Arostratum oblitum

Fig.2. Arostratum oblitum specimen. “Oblitum” means “forgotten” in Latin. (Credit: Bruno Massa).

Arostratum oblitum (from the Latin word for “forgotten”) was one of four new bush crickets identified after more than 100 years in museum drawers. Bruno Massa, with the University of Palermo, studied the morphology of specimens from European natural history museums, including those in Berlin, Madrid, and Terrasini. A. oblitum and its cousins come from Central Africa, which is home to many species related to bush crickets.

Ichthyosaur, Ichthyosaurus anningae

Fig.3. Artist’s rendition of the Ichthyosaurus anningae (Credit: James McKay, University of Manchester)

In 2008, paleontologist Dean Lomax with the University of Manchester found a unique fossil hidden among the collections of Doncaster Museum and Art Gallery. What was originally thought to be a plaster model turned out to be a 189-million-year-old, well-preserved specimen. After the initial examination, Lomax and colleague Judy Massare, of Brockport College, compared the animal to about 1,000 other fossils to confirm the discovery of a species. They named the species Ichthyosaurus anningae, after the 19th century British fossil hunter Mary Anning, who found the first correctly identified ichthyosaur.

These animals are only a few among many new species recognized each year. Recognizing a plant or animal is essential for conservation work to protect habitats and ecosystems. Discoveries happen more often than we think and novel organisms are often found in collections, hiding in plain sight.


American Museum of Natural History. (2015, February 17). Shelf Life Episode 4 - Skull of the Olinguito [Video file]. Retrieved from

Gill, V. (2015, February 18). Forgotten fossil found to be new species of ichthyosaur. BBC News. Retrieved from

Kemp, C. (2015, February 18). Museums: The endangered dead. Nature. Retrieved

Kirkpatrick, N. (2015, February 20). ‘The surprises still hidden in our oceans:’ A ruby red seadragon. Washington Post. Retrieved from

Massa, B. (2015). New genera, species and records of Phaneropterinae (Othoptera, Phaneropteridae) from sub-Saharan Africa. ZooKeys, 472: 77-102. doi: 10.3897/zookeys.472.8575.

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