Skip to main content

New 'lost world' could be lost again

By David B. Wake, Special to CNN
November 1, 2013 -- Updated 2044 GMT (0444 HKT)
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
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1259 GMT (2059 HKT)
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
September 21, 2014 -- Updated 2132 GMT (0532 HKT)
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1917 GMT (0317 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1359 GMT (2159 HKT)
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1927 GMT (0327 HKT)
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT