6 Half-Assed Ways Scientists Made Mind Blowing Discoveries
When we think about scientists discovering new species, we usually imagine someone wandering through heretofore unexplored stretches of Amazon wilderness and finally stumbling across some new kind of spider monkey or maybe bigfoot. But the world is full of creatures previously unknown to science, and they turn up in the most ridiculous of places ...
A New Sea Urchin Discovered on eBay
Dr. Simon Coppard, a zoologist from the Natural History Museum in London, owes his fame to having discovered a new species of sea urchin (they have different standards of fame in the field of zoology). But he didn't do it after trawling new frontiers along the briny ocean floor in a tiny submarine -- he did it after screwing around on eBay for a few hours and stumbling across someone selling it for under 10 bucks.
If it had been $12, the sea urchin would've stayed unknown forever.
Apparently, sea urchins are a hot commodity online, and the recession-proof urchin industry is booming -- so much so that taxonomists can keep their animal classifying skills sharp by just sitting back and identifying different types of urchin specimens for sale. People buy them for their cool colors, and the specimen Coppard stumbled across was brighter than most, looking like something a starfish would use in lieu of a Fleshlight.
After confirming that he had indeed come across a new species, Coppard named it Coelopleurus exquisitus for its amazing colors. And although he picked it up at a bargain, the name he gave to it raised the price of future specimens on eBay to around $138. So for you people who are sitting on stockpiles of Coelopleurus exquisitus, you're about to make one of the world's most improbable fortunes.
Wait, isn't this what the Flintstones used as money?
Dozens of New Species Discovered in Asian Food Markets
Around 2010, lizard expert Lee Grismer of California received a call from a colleague in Vietnam, who had been traveling through a small town when he came across a restaurant serving a dish that he couldn't identify. We don't mean he had never eaten it before -- they were literally serving a type of lizard that he was pretty sure no one had ever observed in the wild (if a paper plate at a Vietnamese lizard restaurant can be considered "the wild," which we think it can).
Behold, the majestic pan-fried gecko.
Grismer couldn't identify it, either, so he caught the first plane out to Ho Chi Minh City in hope of finding and naming a brand new species. He phoned the restaurant and asked if they could reserve him a few specimens, but unfortunately by the time he made the eight-hour trip out there, he found that the restaurant owner had gotten drunk and cooked all of the lizards to serve to his guests. So Grismer would only get to study whatever he could get in a doggy bag.
He'd have had more to study if the damn lizard hadn't tasted so good with barbecue sauce.
Luckily, after exploring the town, he found another establishment serving the same lizards, one that had a little more restraint with the booze. What Grismer discovered was that it was indeed a new species that had never before been recorded, and, apparently, all of them are female. They don't reproduce sexually, they just clone themselves, which is fairly unusual (and also apparently makes them delicious, somehow?).
This whole "finding a new species on a menu" scenario actually happens a lot -- Asian food markets have proven to be a treasure trove for never-before-seen critters. For instance, a 2007 survey at Indonesian markets found more than 20 new types of sharks and rays, including a thing called a catshark.
The reality of the catshark can never live up to the expectation.
In Laos, scientists found the first newly discovered family of mammal in 30 years being served on skewers. And in the Philippines, an incredibly rare bird called a Worcester's Buttonquail, thought to be extinct, turned up at a food market where scientists were lucky enough to snap a photograph of it before it was sold to a hungry family. Because an animal is tastiest when it's the last of its species.
The New Iguana that Turned Up in a Hollywood Movie
The Blue Lagoon was a terrible 1980s movie notorious for starring a then-14-year-old Brooke Shields in a role where she performs numerous sex scenes and otherwise spends most of the film naked. But despite making the whole world feel a little uncomfortable, it featured some breathtaking scenery from where it was filmed in the Yasawa islands off Fiji and guest starred an iguana, who was notable for never having been seen before the movie hit theaters.
He received an executive producer credit.
The American filmmakers evidently feeling the need to add some wildlife to distract from all the underage fucking, found a random iguana to shove in the scene, because it looked cool. But John Gibbons, a reptile scientist from the University of the South Pacific, who was watching the film presumably due to his interest in iguanas rather than kids doing it in the jungle, spotted the lizard and noted that it was one that he didn't recognize. And if he had never seen it before, there was a good chance no one else had, either.
For some reason it wasn't immediately dubbed, "the leering pedophile iguana."
A little research discovered that it indeed was a species heretofore unknown to science: It had a large crest and "looked like a miniature dinosaur." Being a man of boundless creativity, he named it the crested iguana. And here we thought the greatest scientific advancement from that film would be the technique of gluing an actress's hair to her boobs so her nipples won't show.
A New Species of Insect Found on Flickr
Discovering exotic insects unknown to science usually requires traipsing through thick jungles, magnifying glass in one hand and the remains of your parasite-riddled genitals in the other, all for the payoff of Latinizing your name and giving it to an ungrateful beetle. Not so for professional taxonomist Shaun Winterton, who was perusing a gallery of insect pictures on Flickr when he stumbled across a type of lacewing fly he didn't recognize. And as you know by now, seeing a critter they don't recognize is a major event for a scientist.
"TO THE TAXONOMOBILE!"
After he shared the picture with other experts they all agreed they'd never seen this particular type of fly before (this somewhat lazy form of species discovery has come to be called "Cybertaxonomy" by scientists, which sounds kind of sarcastic to us). Less than a year later the original photographer, Hock Ping Guek, was able to find another specimen, which he promptly imprisoned and mailed off to be tested.
The specimen's reproductive bits were then macerated (we don't know what it means, but it's not the most pleasant sounding procedure ever done to anything's junk), and the creature turned out to be an unknown type of green lacewing, which Winterton was allowed to name because, you know, he's the one who spotted it on the Internet. He dubbed it Semachrysa jade after his daughter.
And then, presumably, lied and told her it was a new species of unicorn.
We're not sure she should be flattered -- young greenwings inject a digestive secretion into their prey and are highly aggressive and cannibalistic. Honestly, if Mr. Winterton has issues with his daughter, he should just tell her directly.
A New Kind of Jellyfish Discovered in an Aquarium
The world's oceans are a big and scary place. There's a lot of stuff out there, much of it eager to tentacle you in the face. We'll probably never document the full extent of the ocean's ecosystem, but every now and then, we'll scoop out something unexpected and wind up putting it on display at SeaWorld.
That was kind of what happened when Dr. Lisa-ann Gershwin, one of the world's only full-time jellyfish experts, took a trip to Townsville Aquarium in Australia in 2008. Gershwin already had an unnerving talent for discovering new species, having at this point identified 158, including one jellyfish that causes prolonged boners, which she hopes to utilize for the good of humanity.
In this context, "humanity" means "old men with erectile dysfunction".
So when Dr. Gershwin visited the aquarium, she did what she does best and discovered a new species of jellyfish that was just chilling around in the tanks. You know, in a place where their entire purpose is to display creatures science has already identified. Apparently in Australia they just snatch up whatever they can find and fling it into their tanks.
To be fair, the jellyfish was only the size of a grain of rice, so it's not that strange that they missed it. Gershwin identified about 50 of the creatures, which were called "snotfish" until someone came up with a less embarrassing name for them. According to Gershwin, they're not even very good at being jellyfish -- they can't swim, they can't sting, and their anus is wrapped around their brain. Genetically it's a jellyfish, but physically it's a disappointment, so it's possible that they were simply hiding out of shame.
Above: the liberal arts major of the sea.
Unknown Species of Bacteria Are Freaking Everywhere
If some science egghead told you that the yogurt you've just eaten contained a previously unknown species of bacteria, then you would probably gargle bleach. Nobody wants to hear that they've just swallowed something that's a mystery to science. But you can probably relax, because science doesn't have a goddamn clue what's in your food.
"Dear Lord ... Coors Light is made of people."
So, yes, scientists have in fact found completely unknown species in yogurt, but yogurt has nothing on the bacterial roulette you play when eating cheese. Scientists can't stop finding new species in basically all of the cheese.
However, you won't escape unknown species in your life by cutting down on dairy, because your body is much worse than cheese. Scientists from North Carolina State University swabbed the belly buttons of 60 volunteers and analyzed the genetic make-up of the micro-organisms living there. Between them all, they found 2,368 species of bacteria, and they reckon 1,458 of them may be previously unknown.
For those of you too horrified to do the math, that's an average of around 24 new species in each belly button. Even those bacteria they recognized were unexpected, with one volunteer hosting species normally found in underwater thermal vents and arctic ice sheets.
"I do shoot a lot of boiling steam at my belly. Think that might have something to do with it?"
But don't feel too bad -- there's basically nowhere on Earth where strange new bacteria doesn't show up. For example, NASA's "clean rooms," which are designed to be completely free of bacteria so they don't wind up contaminating their sensitive instruments. But an analysis of swabs taken in those rooms found 193 different species of bacteria, at least 13 of them unknown. Hell, NASA is so busy looking for life on other planets, they don't even know how many aliens they've eaten for lunch today.
Related Reading: The Internet is the most ridiculous place of all, so it should be no surprise that Google Earth is responsible for some incredible discoveries. Including a real-life Land of the Lost, found by scientists on the Internet. If that sounds crazy, you should know that some of the greatest discoveries in history were made by random people who stumbled into them. The Venus de Milo? Found by a treasure-seeking farmer. That's almost as crazy as the time all those ancient Chinese tombs were bulldozed to make an IKEA.