Taxonomy in the news

Bill Shear wshear at EMAIL.HSC.EDU
Wed Jul 24 13:11:47 CDT 2002

The following is from the NY Times.  NEW SPECIES ARE NEWS!  This is a great
way for you and your institution to get the public attention that may
eventually lead to more generous funding for taxonomy.

Bill Shear

"They're totally mindless killing machines."
of the Virginia Museum of Natural History,
on centipedes.  

This was the better quote, although an understatement of the year:
"When I die," he said, "nobody will replace me."

copy this link or read below...
A New Kind of New Yorker, One With 82  Legs


Scientists have discovered an altogether new creature in Central Park.
It is a centipede ‹ which may be the world's smallest ‹ and is the first new
animal species found in Central Park in more than a century, scientists say.

The newly found centipede is so unusual that it makes up a new genus, as
well as a species, said Dr. Kefyn M. Catley, a Rutgers University professor
and staff scientist for the American Museum of Natural History.
A species is a group of similar organisms that under natural conditions
breed only with one another. (Dogs are a species.) A genus, a broader
category, may consist of 100 or more species, or, as in the case of the
city's new centipede, only one. (The Canis genus includes dogs, wolves and
coyotes.) Centipede, like mammal, is a class. (A giraffe is both a genus and
a species.) 

And Central Park may hold more discoveries. A gnat discovered there was
unknown to museum scientists and is now being studied in Germany. Dr. Catley
said that it could also turn out to be a new species.

Museum researchers found the new centipede, along with many other tiny
beings, in leaf litter ‹ piles of broken twigs, fungi and decomposing plant
and tree leaves mixed with soil. Leaf litter is perhaps the "richest and
most complex community in the woods," said Dr. Eleanor Sterling, director of
the natural history museum's Center for Biodiversity and Conservation. It
is, she said, "predators, scavengers, vegetarians living together in a very
complicated system."

Leaf litter accumulates very quickly, said Liz Johnson, the director of the
museum's biodiversity program for the New York region. In one year, five
tons can pile up in two and a half acres of woods. Invertebrates consume it
and keep it from burying the forest, and there they are as numerous as
litter. There are, for instance, some 50,000 springtails (an insect) in one
square yard of litter, and that is only one of the hundreds, or perhaps
thousands, of invertebrates found there.

The Central Park Conservancy, which is restoring its woods, asked the museum
for help in determining what, precisely, is living there in order to best
preserve it, Ms. Johnson said.
To find their leaf litter, museum scientists had only to walk across the
street and go to the North Woods and the Ramble.

"We didn't know what was out there," Ms. Johnson said. "We wanted to see
who's out there in the spring, who's out there in the fall and the summer."

Four times ‹ once a season during 1998 ‹ they collected piles of leaf litter
and carried them back to the museum for the painstaking task of separating
the creatures from the soil and plant detritus, and dividing the minute
animals into categories like worms, beetles and millipedes and centipedes.

The museum sent a collection of Central Park millipedes and centipedes to
Richard L. Hoffman, the curator for invertebrates at the Virginia Museum of
Natural History. After he had studied them, Dr. Hoffman sent several he
could not identify to scientists in Italy who specialize in centipedes and
millipedes. They declared that the centipede was a first and named it after
him: Nannarrup hoffmani, or Hoffman's dwarf centipede.

"I was astonished," Dr. Hoffman said. The odds against it surviving in a
densely populated city ‹ and, in particular, the constant trampling of
millions of Central Park visitors ‹ were astronomical, he said.

Nannarrup hoffmani is 10.3 millimeters long, or about four-tenths of an
inch. Centipedes generally range from 3 centimeters, or 1.2 inches, to as
long as 14 inches. 

All centipedes are predators with poisonous fangs, and eat any animal they
can get their jaws around. The new discovery is no exception. "They're
totally mindless killing machines," said Dr. Hoffman, who vastly prefers the
more peaceable vegetarian millipedes.
Researchers found 10 specimens of Nannarrup hoffmani in the Ramble and the
North Woods. Eight are juveniles, one is just a severed head and scattered
body parts and one is an adult female. Like the juveniles, it has 41 pairs
of legs, an unusually large number for such a small centipede. It is light
yellow, a common centipede coloring, with antennas that are proportionally
short. The female's interior contained sperm. "What's exciting is that it is
obviously capable of reproducing," Ms. Johnson said.

It resembles centipedes from Asia and China more than native ones, Dr.
Hoffman said.  
"Probably it was brought in with potted soil," he said. "Nobody in Manhattan
is native. Exotics have displaced native North American species, just like
we did the Indians."

New species have been discovered in New York State before. The most recent
was a type of sawfly found in 1998 in the pitch pine woods of Albany by Dr.
Timothy L. McCabe, curator of entomology at the New York State Museum. He
said that he could not remember the last time a new genus was found in the
state, but that the last new species found in Central Park was a cutworm
moth discovered about 120 years ago.

Most North American animals were classified between 1820 and 1920, the
golden age of taxonomy, or biological classification.

The discovery of new species of invertebrates is common in tropical rain
forests and wild areas throughout the world, Dr. Hoffman said. So scientists
rarely even raise an eyebrow when they hear of a new one.

Only 1.5 million of the estimated 10 million to 50 million invertebrates
have been identified, Dr. Hoffman said. There is a poignant side to the
finding of Nannarrup hoffmani, as least to Dr. Hoffman. Research money for
the study of invertebrates is drying up and science-minded young people are
choosing molecular biology instead. At the same time, he said, the
destruction of rain forests and the development of wilderness are killing
off huge numbers of invertebrate species, which will vanish, unknown.

"When I die," he said, "nobody will replace me."
Ms. Johnson said the discovery of Nannarrup hoffmani gives new reason to
appreciate the virtues of natural mess in parks.

"If they rake all the leaves, remove all the fallen twigs and branches, new
species ‹ and the regular guys ‹ will not survive," she said. "The whole
system will cease to function. We need to appreciate unmanicured nature."


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