Skip to main content

New 'lost world' could be lost again

By David B. Wake, Special to CNN
updated 4:44 PM EDT, Fri November 1, 2013
A recent expedition in northeast Australia found three vertebrate species, including this leaf-tailed gecko, that have never been seen before. The species were discovered in the Cape Melville mountain range on Australia's Cape York Peninsula. A recent expedition in northeast Australia found three vertebrate species, including this leaf-tailed gecko, that have never been seen before. The species were discovered in the Cape Melville mountain range on Australia's Cape York Peninsula.
HIDE CAPTION
'Lost world' discoveries
'Lost world' discoveries
'Lost world' discoveries
'Lost world' discoveries
'Lost world' discoveries
'Lost world' discoveries
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Wake: Discovery of trove of new species in Australia exciting, unexpected, instructive
  • He says at same time, species being rapidly lost across globe due to human depredations
  • He says this has led scientists to search for new species, but this can't replace ones lost
  • Wake: The biodiversity crisis is very real, many newly discovered species are at risk

Editor's note: David Wake is an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, where he is professor of integrative biology, and the director of the website AmphibiaWeb.

(CNN) -- The recent discoveries of a stunning trove of new vertebrate species from the Cape Melville area of northeast Queensland, Australia, show that we still have a lot to learn about life on this planet.

Even though no place on Earth can be described as "pristine" any longer, these creatures live in habitats that have been relatively little disturbed. They include a spectacular gecko and a frog whose eggs develop without a tadpole stage.

New frogs from heavily explored Australia are somewhat surprising (there are now 239 species, with 25 added in the last 10 years). New species are more likely to turn up in less-explored and more humid lands such as New Guinea. Papua New Guinea, 6% the size of Australia, has 349 species of amphibians, 123 described in the last 10 years.

David Wake
David Wake

But even with these discoveries, amphibians as a group are widely recognized to be in deep trouble. In a 2004 assessment, scientists sought to evaluate as many of the 5,743 known amphibian species as possible. (About 23% of them, likely to be among the most threatened, were not evaluated because of lack of accurate information.) Of those evaluated, 43% were declining and 33% were globally threatened with extinction. The situation has only worsened since.

Habitat destruction, new infectious diseases, introduced species (such as the cane toad in Australia), and climate change, among many other factors, all have been implicated.

Even so, more than 1,600 new species of amphibians have been discovered and described since 2005, including 125 in 2013 so far.

How can this paradox be explained?

The reports of amphibian declines, starting about 1990, stimulated many young biologists to pursue careers in biodiversity research. A new wave of field biologists spread out over the globe to many of the last wild places on Earth.

3 new species discovered in Australia
CNN Explains: Deforestation
Rare porpoise in danger of extinction

At the same time, increased sophistication in species detection developed in laboratories -- involving analysis of DNA, tadpole and larvae anatomy and mating calls recorded in the field -- have enabled scientists to determine that superficially similar creatures should be named as new species. New journals and online publications, like Zootaxa and ZooKeys, enable rapid publication of results and formal descriptions of new species, once a long and tedious process.

The latest discoveries should not make us complacent. In no way do they replace or make up for those lost. Among the recently extinct species are such unusual species as the stomach-brooding frogs of eastern Australia and the golden toad of Costa Rica, with their unique life histories. And most, but not all, of the new discoveries are members of taxa with large numbers of similar species, and few novel lineages are being found.

Most of the newly discovered species are also known from single places or from small geographic ranges and often in habitats that are at great risk of being changed or destroyed. These "lost worlds" are still in danger of being lost. The biodiversity crisis is very real, and many of the new species of all taxa are themselves at risk.

Nevertheless, the discoveries remind us of the richness of biodiversity on this planet and just how far we have to go in our race to catalog life on Earth before it is too late.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Wake.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT