On May 23, 1707, a child was born in the Swedish countryside who would go on to alter the course of science forever. Carl Linnaeus is considered the father of modern taxonomy. He created the modern naming system for organisms, known as binomial nomenclature, which prescribes how scientists recognize and classify new organisms.
In honor of Linnaeus’s upcoming birthday, the International Institute for Species Exploration (IISE) at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry published a list on May 21 of the top 10 new species discovered in 2014. The IISE has published such a list annually since 2008 as a part of a larger initiative to document the estimated 10 million species that remain undiscovered.
Scientists name approximately 18,000 new species every year; the public never hears about most of them. To assemble their top 10, IISE researchers scour primary and secondary sources throughout the year to identify species for potential inclusion in the list. They then narrow their selections to around 40 candidates and pass this list to the IISE International Selection Committee, which determines the top 10 species. Quentin Wheeler, a taxonomist at IISE, explains, “There are no strict criteria for us or the selection committee… [s]o we focus on the biggest, smallest, cutest, ugliest, most surprising and even unusual names.” The selected species represent all five kingdoms of life and hail from all seven continents.
The list is intended not only to showcase the incredible variety of life on Earth but to “bring attention to the biodiversity crisis and the species explorers who are doing something about it,” Wheeler says. Only a small percentage of living species are known to science and it is estimated 50 to 100 species go extinct every day. Consequently, compiling data on new species is an important tool in advancing the field of environmental studies. “Unless we learn what species exist to begin with, we cannot detect or measure changes in biodiversity or make the best conservation decisions,” Wheeler observes.
Wheeler and his colleagues also hope the list carries on Linnaeus’s legacy. “We release the list on or about his birthday… as poetic justice for the scientist who began the ambitious work to complete an inventory of life on our planet that continues today,” Wheeler says. This year’s list includes a feathered dinosaur nicknamed the “chicken from hell” and a pufferfish that makes nests on the sea floor that look like “crop circles.”