It’s never easy to prove a negative, so there’s no way to know exactly how many species in the world have yet to be discovered, simply because they have yet to be discovered. But that doesn’t mean we can’t make guesses and some estimates suggest upwards of 86% of all species on Earth have yet to be discovered. That could mean upwards of five million things out there just waiting to meet us. Every year, researchers discover new ones, and these are 10 of the most interesting we cataloged in 2021.
10. Jackie Chan Gecko
There are around 2,000 species of gecko in the world, which is probably far more than most people realize. They’re diverse little lizards and they can be found on every continent except Antarctica. With so much range, it’s not surprising we’re still finding new ones, especially when many are found deep in jungles where they’re adept at hiding.
In 2021, a dozen new gecko species were identified, but one was clearly the standout from the crowd. Located in the Ghats mountains of India, the new species was dubbed Cnemaspis jackieii in honor of Jackie Chan.
The little lizard got its famous name thanks to its behavior. When researchers were trying to collect one for study, it kept springing from rock to rock, evading capture and displaying remarkable agility, just like Chan.
9. Screaming Tree Frog
If you know anything about tree frogs, you know that they’re small, but they sound big. Tree frogs sing like they’re on stage and can often drown out a conversation if enough of them are nearby. The grey tree frog can crack 108 decibels. That’s as loud as a jackhammer or a jet at 305 meters.
When you hear that a species discovered in 2021 has been dubbed the screaming tree frog, you have to assume it’s not a metaphor. It was discovered along with the slender bleating tree frog, which sounds more dramatic but perhaps quieter overall.
According to researchers, the bleating tree frog has a loud “almost painful” cry, which becomes more intense when they’re trying to impress a mate.
8. Tiger Beetle
There’s nothing inherently unusual about a tiger beetle. In fact, there are already 2,600 known species of these bugs. And they do hold a claim to fame. Tiger beetles are the fastest insects in the world and can hit speeds of 5.6 miles per hour. Given how small the insect is, that’s a remarkable speed.
A new species of the beetle was identified in 2021. The brightly colored beetle was found in a muddy ditch and only 18 specimens have been collected. Contrary to what you might expect, they weren’t found in 2021, though; they were just identified as a new species. In fact, those specimens that were being studied date all the way back to 1992 and 1994. That’s how long it took to get around to studying them and officially identifying them as a new species.
7. Feiruz Wood Lizard
Deep in Peru, you’ll find the Río Huallaga basin. It’s a tributary of the Marañón River and is an area rich in biodiversity that continues to offer up surprises to researchers. One such surprise was the discovery of the Feiruz wood lizard in 2021. With this new addition, there are now 16 species of wood lizard on record.
This new lizard has subtle rainbow colored scales and they’re a bit larger than most of their cousins. They also have eyes ringed in gold that make them stand out in a crowd. That said, the females of the species tend to be a little less flashy in the coloration.
If you’re wondering about the name, there’s no obvious answer for what Feiruz means. That’s because it was specifically chosen in honor of a woman named Catherine Thomson, who financially supported some of the research. She had a pet lizard named Feiruz and now, thanks to her support, she has an entire species named in that pet’s honor.
6. Ramari’s Beaked Whale
You’ll notice that when new species are discovered, they tend to have one thing in common. Whether they’re birds, reptiles, even mammals, new species are almost universally small. No one has discovered a new species of bear or elephant in quite a while because it’s hard to hide a massive beast in the modern world. Unless, of course, that beast lives in the depths of the ocean. That’s the case with Ramari’s beaked whale, a new whale species discovered in 2021 that dwells down around 6,000 feet below the ocean’s surface.
Named for Maori whale expert Ramari Stewart, the whales clock in at a respectable 17 feet in length and weighs around one ton. Because they are mammals, they have to come to the surface at some point to breathe, but sightings are extremely rare. They hover around 3,000 feet deep to hunt squid but stay in the depths to avoid predators like orca whales.
The whales were first identified in 2011 when the carcass of a female came ashore in New Zealand and some local Maori discovered it.
5. Screech Owls
It can be hard to properly identify some bird species since they’re not all that accessible, especially in remote parts of the world. When you see a bird in a tree, you’re often limited by a quick visual inspection to try to figure out what it is. That’s why the two species of screech owls recently discovered in 2021 weren’t discovered earlier. They had previously been identified, but it was assumed they were an already discovered species.
In 2021, DNA analysis and a more in-depth review of their appearance proved that the little birds were unique enough to be their own species. The two newly minted species are also hilariously small, at least in terms of what you probably imagine when you think of owls. They’re only five or six inches long and are brown or grey in color.
If you’re wondering how researchers are able to study these tiny owls, it’s a lot more creative than you might imagine. They play recordings of the owl’s calls and then play them back. The owls think there’s a new owl trying to horn in on their territory, so they show up to defend it, allowing the researchers a chance to study the tiny, angry owls.
4. Orange Bat
Bats live in nearly every environment on Earth with the exception of some temperature extremes. There are 1400 species and they range in size from the miniscule, two-gram bumblebee bat to the massive golden-crowned flying fox with a wingspan of nearly 6 feet. In 2021, we added one more bat to the list with the orange Myotis nimbaensis discovered in Guinea.
The new species has rusty colored fur that makes it look like an orangutan. The wings, however, are jet black. The whole appearance is therefore very Halloween-like in nature. The bat is a standout since, as we’ve seen, many new species are actually species we mistook for a different species for many years. They look like other animals until further study reveals them as something new. This orange bat is unlike any other in the region and simply had never been discovered before.
As far as researchers know, the bats are only found in the Nimba Mountains. That’s a single 40 km stretch of mountain range.
3. World’s Smallest Lizard
Chameleons are some of the most fascinating reptiles in the world. Their color changing abilities have made them extremely famous and their overall unique appearance sets them apart from nearly every other species in the world. Madagascar is home to numerous species, including the largest species known as Parson’s chameleon, which is the size of a cat.
On the opposite end of the scale is the ridiculously small Brookesia nana chameleon, which was identified in 2021. Whatever you think qualifies as a small chameleon, this one is smaller. Publicity photos, after it was discovered, had the lizard posed on someone’s fingertip, a penny, and a match head. Snout to tail, these little guys reach only 2.2 centimeters in length.
Despite the fact these tiny creatures are chameleons, they are not capable of changing color. It’s also unknown why exactly they’re so small, since many other species that live nearby achieve much larger sizes. It may have something to do with the topography, but since these are relatively unknown species at this point, more research will be needed.
2. Killer Tobacco Plant
One thing worth remembering when it comes to the identification of new species is that plants are also identified every year as well. It’s not just animals. There are far more animals that have been identified, 953,000 species of animals compared to 215,000 plants, in fact. Many plant discoveries are not all that exciting but, just as with animals, sometimes a really unique one comes along that has some surprising characteristics.
Australian researchers discovered the killer tobacco plant in 2021. Most of us would consider tobacco a killer because of cigarettes, but that has nothing to do with how this plant got its name. Unlike any other plant in the species, this one produces a sticky substance from glands along its stalk. The substance is so sticky that small insects get stuck to it in a way similar to the Venus flytrap. Bugs like fleas or aphids get stuck and die and the plant and then they die. While that sounds like it’s not entirely different from a fly trap, it should be noted that researchers don’t believe the plant actually absorbs any nutrients from the dead bugs. As far as they can tell, the bugs just get trapped and die.
Almost as interesting as the plant itself was its discovery. Most new species are discovered in incredibly remote areas, deep in untouched wilderness, or even the depths of the ocean. The killer tobacco plant was discovered next to a gas station. Since that time, it has been identified in other locations as well.
1. Wallace’s Sphinx Moth
Charles Darwin once saw an orchid from Madagascar and remarked in a letter, “good heavens, what insect can suck it?” The orchid had a 30 centimeter nectar tube and Darwin’s reaction was certainly not misplaced. What insect is sucking a 30 centimeter nectar tube? Snicker at the question all you like, but the answer was discovered in 2021. It’s Wallace’s sphinx moth.
While Darwin only speculated there had to be a moth capable of feeding from the flower, his theory was picked up a few years later by Alfred Russel Wallace. Wallace made a prediction that the insect capable of feeding on this plant would be very much like a hawkmoth and have a very long proboscis. He flat out stated, “that such a moth exists in Madagascar may be safely predicted.” He went on to recommend any naturalists visiting Madagascar be on the lookout for it. That was in 1867, so “being on the lookout’ is not a timely process.
The moth that has been named in Wallace’s honor has the largest proboscis of any moth in the world. They have to be rolled up unless the moth is eating, but unrolled they measure anywhere from 15 centimeters to 28.5. They’re so long that researchers couldn’t store them in sample drawers with the unrolled and they had to roll them back up again for storage.
Though the new moths are similar to other hawkmoths, just as Wallace predicted, the proboscis is up to six centimeters longer in Wallace’s.