We are already just over two weeks into the new year. It really is amazing how fast time can fly! A new year brings with it many new hopes, dreams and discoveries. This can include new discoveries in the animal and plant kingdoms, as well. It is a common misconception that we have discovered all the flora and fauna there are to discover in the world, but the truth is that there is still much we do not know. In the last 10 years alone, we have seen the addition of nearly 400 new animal and plant species discovered by scientists. From the cute and cuddly to the weird and bizarre, it is obvious that we humans may not know quite as much as we thought we did.
Apparently, if you are looking to discover new species, then Papua New Guinea and the Himalayas are the places to be! The Independent State of Papua New Guinea, located just north of Australia, has been called one of the most "diverse places on earth." It is an area rich in not just plant and animal species, but also human diversity. There are approximately 850 indigenous languages in this area alone. The geography of the area also varies greatly. From tropical rainforests and wetlands, to rivers and coral reefs, there are plenty of places for animals to hide. The frequent volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and tsunamis, along with incredibly dense vegetation, often make travel and exploration in this area difficult.
In 2009, a group of scientists discovered 40 new animal and plant species while exploring the crater of an extinct volcano in Papua New Guinea. This large tropical area has remained isolated and undisturbed since the volcano last erupted around 200,000 years ago. Among the animals discovered was the Bosavi wooly rat. This giant rat is about the size of an average house cat and is thought to be one of the world's largest rats. When one of these rodents was captured it showed no natural fear of humans, which usually means that the animal has not had any contact with humans before and therefore has no reason to be afraid of them. Another animal found in this same area was a fish dubbed the Henamo grunter, which gets its name from the grunting noise it makes using its swim bladder (a sack of air in fish that helps them move up and down in water). Aside from these, there were 16 new frog species discovered (including a fanged frog), two other new fish and also a new bat species all within this old volcano.
While this is truly fascinating, it is nothing compared to the more than 350 new species that have been discovered in the Himalayan Mountains in the last 10 years. The Himalayas boast some of the tallest mountains in the world (including the famous Mount Everest) and span six countries in Asia. Due to the shear height of these mountains, there is a lot of room for diversity in both the animal and plant kingdoms. Different elevations of the mountains give rise to different biomes, with cold and rocky areas higher up and forested areas near the base.
While the majority of the 350 new species were plants, there were also 60 invertebrates, 16 amphibians, 16 reptiles, 14 fish, two birds and two mammals. One of the animals discovered in the Himalayas was the flying frog. This small, bright green frog with red webbing on its hind feet can glide from tree to tree by spreading the webbing between its toes and using them as mini-parachutes. Another animal that has fascinated the scientific community and the general public alike was the discovery of the world's smallest deer. Similar to the muntjacs we have here at the zoo, this tiny deer weighs only 24 pounds and is just over two feet tall. There were even some catfish that have sticky bellies that help them to stay attached to rocks in fast-moving streams.
All of these discoveries help to remind us that each new year brings with it new possibilities. In the natural world, things are always changing and exciting new experiences are waiting around every corner (or within every volcanic crater). We may never be able to learn all there is to know about the animals and plants we share this earth with, but we can make an effort to learn about what is already here. So this year, I challenge you to pursue your own quests for knowledge here at the zoo. Come visit the animals and take the time to read the signs or listen to the cell phone tour to make some new discoveries of your own. You, too, will realize that we all still have a lot to learn.
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