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Turku scientists "race against the clock" to save biodiversity

Researchers at the University of Turku have discovered 40 new species so far this year, including 17 spiders, 23 insects, one millipede, and one lizard. In addition, the experts have described four genera that were previously unknown.

Based on patterns of biodiversity, scientists have reached different conclusions about how many species that are yet to be discovered on Earth. By all accounts, there are millions more that are unknown. 

Recent estimates show that around 15 million species exist, yet only two million have been scientifically described. At the current rate of biodiversity loss, we are losing groups before they are ever even found. Discovering new species gives us an opportunity to protect them.

Ilari E. Sääksjärvi is a professor in the Biodiversity Unit at the University of Turku.

“Biodiversity is declining at an accelerating rate and, according to estimates, even a million organisms are in danger of becoming extinct in the next few decades. If we want to protect nature’s biodiversity as efficiently as possible, we have to discover as many species as we can,” said Professor Sääksjärvi.

In one of the most recent studies from the Biodiversity Unit, phD candidate Alireza Zamani described a new spider, Loureedia phoenixi. The spider was named after Joaquin Phoenix because the bright colors on its back form a pattern that resembles the face paint of the movie character Joker.

“The discovery was amazing as the new species belongs to the genus of velvet spiders, of which only few species have been known so far,” said Zamani. 

“They are very shy in their habits so discovering a new species was a great and welcome surprise. The species in this genus are amazingly beautiful and colorful so I hope this new discovery can make people understand the beauty and importance of spiders.” 

“We discovered the species from an area that is about 1,500 kilometers outside the known geographical distribution of the Loureedia genus.”

Turku researchers have also described tropical parasitoid wasps belonging to the Acrotaphus and Hymenoepimecis genera. The wasps are parasites that prey on spiders and manipulate them in complex ways. The wasp lays its egg on the spider and then manipulates it into spinning a web for its own nesting purposes. 

The team closely studied the Varanus bennetti monitor lizard in the Pacific island nation of Micronesia and drew some important conclusions. Valter Weijola and Varpu Vahtera discovered a new group that was hidden in plain sight.

“The monitor lizard species that was first considered an invasive species to Micronesia turned out to be two separate species native to the islands. We described one of these as new to science,” said the  researchers.

The Biodiversity Unit of the University of Turku has become well-established in exploring the biodiversity of unknown ecosystems. The team describes dozens of new species each year, and in 2020, they are still counting.

“Our goal is to discover new species and tell their story to the world. At the moment, we are in the process of describing even more new species and genera.” 

“Many of these animals live in areas that might transform or even disappear in the next few years. Describing new species to science is a race against the clock.” 

“We hope that our research draws people’s attention to the life of these unique species and thus promotes the conservation of biodiversity.”

The study is published in the journal Arthropoda Selecta.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer


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