The mountain air is chilly. Silence hangs among the leaves and spreads through a remote Himalayan forest like a fog. The scientists stand perfectly still, peering up into the treetops, hoping to see something.
Suddenly, the forest starts to sound like frying bacon. It’s rain hammering the leaves. There is still no sign of the mysterious monkey that had lured the scientists to the forest. They turn to go. But then, a sneeze comes from the branches above. Then another. And another. A snub‑nosed monkey with upturned nostrils sneezes and snorts as the rain drips into its nose. A new species has just been discovered!
Lots of living things, big and small, live their lives without ever being noticed by humans. Some trees, flowers, microbes, insects, and even pigs, whales, and monkeys can go unnoticed for centuries! Some of these new species, like the snub‑nosed monkey, live in remote places that are hard to get to. But many are found close by.
There’s a lot of biodiversity on Earth. Scientists have collected, studied, and put into classifications millions of them. Still, there are many more out there that have yet to be discovered. And anyone can discover them.
Scientists think there may be as many as 10 million species on Earth. So far, we’ve only identified about 1.3 million.
Wait, What Is That?
A streak of movement catches your eye. A flash of orange lands on a branch in your backyard. You take a closer look. It’s got six legs and wings and is the size of your pinky. It’s an insect, but it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Have you discovered a new species? Maybe, maybe not.
This scientist helped discover a new species of crab called the yeti crab.
There’s a specific process for how to identify and name a new species, and it can take years. First, a specimen has to be captured and collected. Then it has to be studied by experts to make sure it doesn’t already belong to a known species. They compare it to similar species. If it looks like something that has been documented, a deeper look may be needed. Scientists take a peek at the DNA of the newly discovered specimen and compare that to the DNA of the similar species. If it is not a match, then the fun begins.
Scientists next write up a detailed report. It includes precise descriptions, lab results, photographs, and drawings. It also calls for a new name. All of this is submitted to a scientific journal where experts from around the world can learn about it. If these experts agree that this new species is valid, then it officially becomes a new species.
What's in a Name?
From the sorting hat spider (Eriovixia gryffindori), which looks just like a tiny sorting hat in the Harry Potter series, to the Beyoncé fly (Scaptia beyonceae), which has a golden backside, every known species on the planet has an official two‑part scientific name.
This system, called binomial nomenclature, has been around since the 1700s. Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus designed it so that someone from one part of the world could share information about a specific species with a person in another part of the world, and both would know exactly what they were talking about.
The first part of the name is called the genus. It’s a name for a small group of related organisms. The second part is a unique description word that identifies the species. It’s called the specific epithet. For example, three small and round species of fungus beetles are named Gelae baen (sounding like “jelly bean”), Gelae balae (“jelly belly”), and Gelae donut (“jelly doughnut”). The genus is Gelae. It shows that they are related. Together, the genus plus the specific epithet is the full scientific name. If the Latin is too hard to say, people often just use the common name, like the “jelly belly” beetle.