Surprising as it may be, scientists are still discovering new species of insects and related organisms. Here is how they find them.
New species are collected in the field
The usual assumption is that new species are discovered by scientists collecting specimens in the jungle. This happens, but is a rather rare event. It usually occurs in remote areas of the tropics, and in the deep ocean. Still, a new species of centipede was discovered in New York City’s Central Park in 2002.
New species are discovered in existing collections
This is how most new species are discov ered. Museums and universities all over the world house important collections of insects and other animals that have both historical and scientific value. Curators are constantly at work organizing specimens and sending them to experts who specialize on small groups of organisms, like hairstreak butterflies for example. These experts may determine that what we once thought was a single species is in fact a complex of several species, each one now needing a new name. The reverse can be true, too: Several individual species may turn out to be just one. Oh, it is frowned upon to name a species after yourself. Try a mentor, celebrity, or relative.
Advances in DNA research
Perhaps the most revolutionary tool in the identification of species has been molecular DNA analysis. These days, a scientist is as likely to pulverize part of a specimen and analyze its genetic material as he or she is to put the entire organism under a microscope. The result of DNA work has revealed countless “cryptic species” that look identical in every other way.
Analysis of animal behaviors
Incredibly, we are learning that even at the level of DNA, there may be more hidden species. Scientists studying fireflies have discovered species that can only be distinguished by the flash patterns of their blinking bioluminescent organs. Otherwise, the beetles are perfectly identical to other fireflies.
The concept of a species is constantly in flux
Most biologists today admit that the definition of a species is rather flexible. Historically, a species was defined as a population of organisms capable of producing viable offspring. It turns out hybridization is more frequent than previously thought. There is not always a concrete outcome, but exciting discoveries happen all the time. They lead to research that benefits medicine, technology, and every other aspect of our lives.