Doug Bonderud

Jan 26th 2022

Who’s New in the Zoo? 5 New Species Discovered in 2021


How many animal species exist on Earth? While there’s no way to be certain, recent estimates put the number at around 8.7 million, but considering researchers have only found 1.2 million, we’re less than one-fifth of the way to — as a certain video game might say — catching them all.

As a result, every year comes with new species discovered. Here’s a roundup of five interesting animals found in 2021.

Keeping It Real

Dear King Phillip Came Over For Good Soup. This mnemonic — and similar versions of it — have been used for decades to help students remember the order of taxa in biology: Domain, Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus and Species.

It’s a useful memory device, and it also highlights the position of species in the list as the narrowest of groups that belong to larger genera, families and orders. As a result, it’s no easy task to identify new species. In many cases, it takes years of painstaking work that involves comparing supposedly new animals to already discovered species. When they’re too similar, the new animal is classified as a variety of an existing species. If they have enough verifiable differences, however, the new animal gets its own taxonomic branch.

Due to this process, most of the animals below aren’t new to scientists, but in 2021, enough evidence was collected to designate them as newly discovered species.

The Emperor Dumbo Octopus

Found in July 2016 by evolutionary biologist Alexander Ziegler, the first sighting of Grimpoteuthis imperator occurred when one got tangled in a net designed to haul up rocks from 4,000 meters below sea level. While its pinkish cast, eight arms and two small side fins marked it as a Dumbo octopus, Ziegler suspected it might be a new species, given its distance from traditional Dumbo habitats in the Pacific.

Using an MRI and CT scanner, Ziegler examined the creature’s arms, suckers, eyes and beak to determine if it truly was a new species. The results showed enough differentiation to earn the animal its own species designation. The “Emperor” moniker is in reference to the Emperor Seamounts of Japan, where the octopus was first found. Ziegler’s analysis also marks the first time a species this large has been thoroughly scanned using non-destructive methods.

The Bright Orange Bat

In 2018, researchers were exploring the Nimba Mountains in search of Lamotte’s roundleaf bat (Hipposideros lamottei), which is critically endangered and has only ever been observed in this mountain range. Instead, they found a bright orange and black bat that no one recognized.

After studying the bat’s molecular, morphological and echolocation characteristics, the team determined that they’d stumbled upon a new species and appropriately named it the Bright Orange Bat (Myotis nimbaensis). Found in old mining tunnels known to house other, more familiar bat species, the discovery underpins the notion that Earth always has another surprise in store.

The Nano-Chameleon

Next on our new species 2021 roundup is the Nano-Chameleon (Brookesia nana), which was discovered early in the year in Madagascar by a team of German and Malagasy scientists. The male of this tiny reptile species comes in at just 22 millimeters from tip to tail and fits easily on a fingertip, while the female is slightly longer at 29 millimeters.

The most distinctive feature of this new nano chameleon is that the male’s genitals account for 18.5% of his total body size. The likely explanation is sexual size dimorphism. With the female being larger than the male, the males need larger genitals to ensure reproductive success. It’s worth noting that this still puts the Nano-Chameleon in fifth place among its larger genus — Brookesia tuberculata takes first place with genitals that are one-third its body size.

Unfortunately, the team was only able to locate one male and one female Brookesia nana for study.

The Zombie Frog

Finding frogs is no easy task, especially when they live underground in the Amazon rainforest. Herpetologists like Raffael Ernst, who discovered the Zombie Frog (Synapturanus zombie), have to wait in the jungle during periods of heavy rain, since this is the only time when the male frogs make their mating call. When Ernst heard a not-quite-familiar amphibian call from the dirt underneath his feet, he dropped to his hands and knees and started digging. Thanks to these efforts, he found a small, narrow-mouthed and pointed-nosed nocturnal frog that no one had seen before.

Interestingly, the “Zombie” in its name didn’t come from the frog itself. Instead, it’s a reference to how the researchers looked: covered in mud and dripping wet once they dug the frogs out of the soaking Amazon soil.

The RuPaul Rainbow Fly

Start your engines — this fly is here to get fabulous.

Last on our new species 2021 list is a Soldier Fly (Opaluma rupaul) named after the Drag Race icon due to its iridescent colors and long legs. Found in Southeast Queensland, the fly forms a critical part of the local ecosystem and is one of several species named after celebrities, such as the golden-haired Scaptia beyonceae named after singer Beyoncé and the Agra schwarzeneggeri, a beetle named after the famed bodybuilder for its muscular appearance.

While some scientists frown on this famous naming trend, the Senior Curator of Flies at the Natural History Museum notes that “there are many reasons to name a species after something or someone famous. If there’s an obvious physical trait they have that links with the animal, then it can be a helpful diagnostic tool in some ways.”

While there’s no telling what new species will be discovered next year, one thing is certain: We’re nowhere near done discovering the animal diversity of Earth.

Check out Northrop Grumman career opportunities to see how you can participate in this fascinating time of discovery in science, technology and engineering.