Biodiversity – The age of discoveries in zoology is not over yet

„There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” (Hamlet)

In the August 2013 issue of ZooKeys, a group of zoologists in the Smithsonian Institution, the world’s largest museum and research centre based in Washington, published information about the discovery of a new animal species belonging to the Procyonidae family, the first predatory mammal found in America in the last 35 years and a true sensation of the twenty-first century zoology. The new mammal was described by its discoverers under the name olinguito Bassaricyon neblina, in accordance with every discoverer’s right to name a new species.
According to Kristofer Helgen, the leader of the expedition which described the new species and curator of the Division of Mammals in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, the discovery of the olinguito shows that the world has not been fully explored yet and many of its secrets are still waiting to be revealed.
Related to the raccoon, the kinkajou and the ring-tailed coati, the newly discovered olinguito grows 80 inches long, half of which is the tail. Living in a cloud forest which grows at the altitudes of 2,000 to 3,000 m on the slopes of the Andes in Ecuador and Colombia, it leads a nocturnal life and rarely leaves the dense canopy of trees. The story of its discovery and documentation dates back to a hundred years ago and shows how long and winding are the paths leading to the records of the official science.

From dusty museum shelves to the cloud forests of Ecuador
The first olinguitos got to museum collections over a hundred years ago. For a long time, however, as a result of an incorrect designation, they were assumed to be the specimens of other species related to the olinguito. As found today on the basis of photographic documentation, at least one living olinguito was shown in U.S. zoos in the 1960s and 70s. Its discoverers came across the track of the new species by accident ten years ago, not in the Andean forests but … the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. By examining the exhibits of the northern olingo Bassaricyon gabbii, the researchers noticed that some of them differed in size and the parameters of various parts of the skeleton. The fact that this is a different species was confirmed by genetic testing. On the basis of analysis of the descriptions attached to the stuffed animals it was determined that their region of origin were the Andean cloud forests, lying at clearly higher altitudes than the areas of occurrence of the already known northern olingo.
Because museum specimens came from the early twentieth century, it was necessary to check whether the olinguito had not shared the fate of many other species recently extinct and to finally confirm the discovery in field. The expedition was a total success and the first proof of the existence of the olinguito in nature was a short film shot in the Ecuadorian reserve Otonga.
Sensational discoveries made among museum exhibits had indeed happened in the history of research many times. In 1925, the attention of the naturalist Ernest Schwartz, examining the skin and bones of chimpanzees in the Belgian Congo Museum, was attracted to an exhibit which differed from the others. A few years later, thanks to finding live specimens in the wild, it became the basis for describing the pygmy chimpanzee Pan paniscus, known as the bonobo, an ape with a very well developed social and sexual life, fulfilling the key role in the relationships between the members of the community. It differs genetically from the human being in only 1.3 per cent. In 1936, in the same museum, in the store of less valuable exhibits, there were found two beautiful Congolese peacocks Afropavo congensis, sought for 25 years, i.e. from the time when the Europeans had first seen the feathers of these birds in the head decorations of Awakubi people in Congo.

The blank spots of zoology
The discourse on the chances of new species discovery has been carried out for at least two hundred years, since Georges Cuvier, an outstanding French paleontologist and naturalist, said that the days of great discoveries in zoology had gone.
Subsequent decades have shown that Cuvier, an anatomist of great merit for science at least for successful reconstruction of the mastodon, pterodactyl or giant sloth skeletons, awarded the title of baron, founder of modern paleontology, was wrong to announce too soon the end of the era of great discoveries in zoology, which in the nineteenth century were really just beginning. The nineteenth century was a period of the development of life sciences, which brought explanation of numerous myths, legends and incredible stories and resulted in an unprecedented explosion of discoveries of what arouses the strongest emotions: large mammal species.
Discoveries in zoology are made in various ways, leading to understanding and classifying the species which have so far escaped biological description. Frequently, especially in the case of nineteenth-century discoveries, they concerned semi-legendary or almost mythical animals, often known only from vivid descriptions provided by the indigenous inhabitants of the explored areas or from the texts of ancient travellers.
Seven years after Cuvier’s declaration, in 1819, a specimen shot near Malacca by the British governor Farquahar was described as the Malayan tapir Tapirus indicus, growing up to 320 kg of body weight, with characteristic black-and-white hair.
In 1835, the German naturalist Eduard Ruppell discovered the largest of the baboons: the gelada Theropithecus gelada, living in Ethiopia, and characterised by a beautiful, long-haired „coat” covering the ape’s body.
The nineteenth century also had a story that sparked a sensation that today would be caused by finding the yeti, or the Bigfoot. „Hairy wild men”, with whom he fought, had been first described in the fifth century BC by the Carthaginian navigator Hanno in the account of his voyage, during which he sailed through the Strait of Gibraltar to the Gulf of Guinea. Stories of wild black African giants inhabiting forests, stronger than ten adult men, appeared in more or less reliable versions in the relationships of subsequent travellers, who had learned about the dangerous creatures from the natives. The puzzle had to wait for its solution for more than two thousand years (!).
The first scientific description of the western gorilla Gorilla gorilla was published by the American Protestant missionary Savage, working in Gabon, and by Professor Jeffries Wyman as late as 1847. However, the existence of the largest ape in the world: the eastern gorilla Gorilla beringei, also known as the mountain gorilla, was officially confirmed only in 1902, when Captain Friedrich von Beringe sent to the Museum of Natural History in Berlin the skins and skeletons of two giant apes hunted in Kivu in the then Belgian Congo.
Among the discoveries that were brought by the age of steam and steel, one cannot forget the great panda Ailuropoda melanoleuca, whose skin and skeleton was seen by the French missionary Armand David in 1869, and which for the next half century escaped research expeditions aimed to capture its live specimens for zoological gardens.
At the turn of the 20th century, the enigma of the okapi Okapia johnstoni was also solved. As reported by the naturalist and author Dr Maurice Burton: „Today, no one has the idea of the romantic aura that surrounded the discovery of the okapi, or the excitement in the circles of naturalists on the spread of the first vague rumours of its existence (…)”. The mysterious animal was initially known only from a brief description in the book In Darkest Africa by the British explorer Sir Henry M. Stanley: „The Wambutti know a kind of donkey which they call the atti. They say that they trap it using magic” .
In the early twentieth century was described the third elephant species, apart from the African and the Asian ones, namely the African forest elephant Loxodonta cyclotis, almost twice the size of its cousins from the savannahs. The new species had to wait for its official recognition for 100 years until its distinctness as a species, despite clear differences in appearance and mode of life, was finally verified through genetic testing.
Among zoological discoveries in the early twentieth century, it is worth mentioning the one made on the Indonesian islands: the Komodo monitor Varanus komodoensis, the largest lizard in the world, growing up to 4 meters in length, fully worthy of its other name: the Komodo dragon, used interchangeably.
Ancient paintings and a fish market
A valuable source of information for botanists looking for new species may sometimes be provided by old writings and paintings. After being recorded on the contemporary list of fauna, the gerenuk antelope Litocranius walleri, characterised by a distinctive filigree body and an incredibly long neck, and Grevy’s zebra Equus grevyi, distinguished by extremely narrow strips, were found again… on ancient Egyptian paintings from the fifth century BC.
The lobe-finned fish Latimeria chalumnae, a living fossil believed to be extinct for millions of years, was „discovered” in 1938 on the African fish market by Mrs Latimer. Sixty years later, on a stall on the island of Sulawesi, a couple on their honeymoon trip purchased a strange fish described later as another species: Latimeria menadoensis.
„Top ten” of modern discoveries in zoology
In the era of genetic research and increasing specialization of cognitive tools in zoology, several hundred new species are discovered yearly, but it is the few naturalists who know where and how to look for faunal rarities that become the real sensation.
1. The Sunda clouded leopard Neofelis diardi – for two hundred years considered to be a subspecies of the clouded leopard, was distinguished as a completely separate species in 2007 on the basis of genetic testing.
2. The saola Pseudoryx nghetinhensis – discovered in 1992, resembles an antelope and is one of the largest animals discovered in recent years. Extremely rare, it lives in the Vietnamese jungle, which for many years was inaccessible, not only because of difficult terrain but also the war and its dangerous remains.
3. The mole rat Fukomys vandewoestijneae – that strange mammal was first seen in 2002 on the Zambezi river.
4. The macaque Cercopithecus lomamiensis – a monkey with a gentle, human look in the eyes, one of two species of Old World monkeys, discovered in the past three decades in Africa.
5. The Salanoia durrelli – a predatory endemic mammal of the Viverridae family, observed for the first time in 2004 in Madagascar.
6. The Cambodian Tailorbird Orthotomus Chaktomuk – a small Cambodian songbird, which was first seen in 2009 at a construction site in Phnom Penh.
7. The snake Leptotyphlops carlae – the smallest snake in the world with the length of 10 cm and the diameter of 2.5 mm, discovered in 2008 on the island of Barbados.
8. The purple frog Nasikabatrachus sahyadrensis – also known as the pignose frog due to its unique mouth shape. Described in 2003, endemic to southern India, it spends almost all of its life underground.
9. Pogonophryne neyelovi – a fish discovered during fishing in the Ross Sea, adapted to withstand the extreme conditions of the Antarctic sea depths.
10. The Falniowskia neglectissima – a small snail, discovered in 1989, in Ojcowski National Park in Poland.

Blank spots on the maps of the world
According to the information provided for the purposes of this article by Dr Miguel Pinto, a member of the team of olinguito discoverers, discovering and describing new species is the first step towards the knowledge and understanding of the relationships governing the examined ecosystems. Among the regions of the world where, thanks to the natural richness along with terrain inaccessibility, unknown species are still likely to exist, he indicated Africa south of the Sahara, the slopes of the Andes and the Himalayas, the jungles of Southeast Asia, Papua New Guinea and the islands of Indonesia.
Blank spots on zoological maps appear, seemingly contrary to logic, even today, exactly as a result of the development of modern means of transport. According to Professor Falniowski in his book Drogi i bezdroża ewolucji mięczaków [Highways and byways of molluscan evolution] due to the taking over of passenger transport by aircraft and freight transport by large ships, numerous islands – once visited to replenish stocks of fresh water and to repair damaged ships – have been forgotten and the knowledge of their fauna it is smaller than in the age of sailing ships.
In the words of Bernard Heuvelmans, the founder of cryptozoology, the science searching for species which have so far evaded the official description: „Aerial photographs create the illusion that the world is well known. In fact, photos of forests and grasslands overgrown with tall grass or bushes do not say anything about the animals that live there, even if they were size of an elephant or rhinoceros. And how about amphibians (…)? „. Meanwhile, „The work of the naturalist begins where the work of the geographer ends.”