Contrary to popular belief, we haven’t actually catalogued all (or even most) of our animal brethren by 2019. New species keep popping up in the unlikeliest of places, catching scientists by surprise. They inhabit everything from pristine forests and lagoons, to stifling urban environments, to dark (and mildly creepy) subterranean locales. We like to think it’s nature’s subtle way of making humans eat humble pie; a reminder of the dazzling array of creatures we share the planet with.
The middle of the year threw up some interesting names and animals in India, but we couldn’t make a second discovery list without a bonus section with some prehistoric finds that were recently making headlines. Read on to find out!
The Bhujia Eel-Loach
This tiny, translucent fish dropped out of the tap of one graphic designer in Kerala. The man initially assumed it was a juvenile mottled eel, but researchers later confirmed that it was an entirely new species of eel-loach, the first found living in subterranean environments.
Usually found in streams in South and Southeast Asia, Pangio bhujia inhabits the aquifers of Kerala, and is anatomically quite different from those in the genus Pangio, likely to its underground home. It has almost no eyes, wears very little pigment, and entirely lacks a dorsal fin. The only second miniature species in the genus, it’s also the only species in the 4,600-strong order Cypriniformes that doesn’t have a dorsal fin, making the discovery particularly exciting.
But why the bhujia in its name? Ralf Britz (a researcher from the Natural History Museum), co-author of the paper detailing the discovery, saw the Indian snack at a coffee shop and found the eel-loach to be very similar in appearance: it’s only 25mm in size, and slightly curves when preserved.
The Brown Blotched Bengal Tree Frog
Who said you have to go to the Sunderbans for the discovery of species in West Bengal? Highlighting the potential for residential areas to harbour life is Polypedates bengalensis, or the brown blotched bengal tree frog. The 26th addition to the genus Polypedates, it’s remained in plain sight for years, but has an elusive nature that has so far prevented documentation. However, sightings in Badu (district North 24 Parganas) and Khordanahala (district South 24 Parganas) were confirmed by peer-reviewed journal Zootaxa to be a new species. The frog has six to nine brown blotches that go laterally from behind its eye to its vent, and was named after this striking feature.
Jayaditya Purkayastha, an Assam-based herpetologist, first received a picture of the frog in 2016 from Shibajee Mitra, a snake enthusiast in Kolkata, and was instantly intrigued. Frogs in Polypedates generally have stripes and were yellow, but this one wore blotches, and was both yellow and brown. Kingshuk Mondal, another reptile enthusiast helped move things along the next two years, with more photos, a collected sample, and a recording of its call, which was unusually “heard well after sunset and continued till after midnight."
Six New Dravidogeckos
Dravidogecko anamallensis, or the Anamalai hill gecko,is a small lizard species found in the Western Ghats. It evolved around 58 million years ago when the Indian subcontinent separated from Africa, and was recognised as the only member of the genus. This changed in 2019, when researchers discovered six more relatives in the region.
Led by Bengaluru-based herpetologist R. Chaitanya, a team discovered six new entrants to the genus, namely Dravidogecko septentrionalis (from Wayanad, possibly the northernmost distribution of this genus), Dravidogecko douglasadamsi (from Tirunelveli district, named in honour of Douglas Adams of Hitchhiker’s Guide, and the number 42), Dravidogecko smithi (from Ponmudi, named after British herpetologist Malcolm Arthur Smith), Dravidogecko meghamalaiensis (after its type locality, Meghamalai in the southern Western Ghats), Dravidogecko janakiae (from Munnar, named in honour of Janaki Ammal, the first Indian woman to get a PhD in Botany) and Dravidogecko tholpalli (from Kodaikanal, thol meaning ‘ancient’ in Tamil and palli, the word for gecko).
Zootaxa published Chaitanya and his team’s study on October 21. The geckos are mostly nocturnal, and prefer to live in tree trunks and abandoned buildings. Given the ecologically similar areas they inhabit, the lizards have minute and precise morphological differences, making DNA-based molecular analysis the best way to distinguish one Dravidogecko from another.
Bonus: Two New Dinosaurs!
Fossils discovered in Thailand have pointed towards a new genus and species of dinosaur with ‘shark-like teeth’. The researchers who discovered the animal have christened it Siamraptor suwati, and believe the creature roamed the land as a scaly, eight-metre long apex predator 115 million years ago.
The fossils came from at least four individual raptors, with parts of the species' skull, backbone, limbs, hips and teeth being found. The research team believes the species represents a very early evolutionary split from the dinosaur group known as carcharodontosaurs. This group is characterised by distinct undulations on the margins of the members’ thin, blade-like teeth, a feature that has also been observed in the new Siamraptor. Specimens of the family have only been found in Europe and Africa in the past, making the Siamraptor surprising, yet definitive proof that the carcharodontosaurs also spread to Southeast Asia.
Another dino-discovery came from Japan this September. The fossilised remains of a creature known colloquially as the Mukawa Dragon was declared to be a new species, the Kamuysaurus japonicus. Discovered in Mukawa, Hokkaido, it was eight metres long and walked the earth around 84 million years ago, making Kamuysaurus a contemporary of the Tyrannosaurus rex. It is also the largest dinosaur with an intact skeleton found in Japan.
First noted in 2003, the fossil was discovered in a soil layer that was underwater in the Late Mesozoic Cretaceous period (around 72 million years ago), which originally led researchers to believe it belonged to a marine reptile. But features like narrow forelegs, uniquely tilted neural spikes on the spine, and a possible crest on its head recently confirmed it as a new species, likely of the duck-billed herbivore family Hadrosauridae. The study was published in Scientific Reports, a publication of Nature. Kamuy is the word for ‘god” used by the Ainu, an indigenous people in Hokkaido. With saurus and japonicus meaning ‘lizard’ and ‘Japanese’ in Latin, respectively, a direct translation offers the dramatic moniker of being the ‘god lizard of Japan’.
These are our most interesting picks for now; our next wildlife haul probably won't be till next year. But we're feeling optimistic that the new millennium will lead to a host of biological surprises.