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Where and what to look for to find new species?

Updated: May 11, 2021

In last week's post, I have introduced the surprising diversity of new species being described from Hong Kong. In this post I will continue this exploration with a focus on where these new species live and what they are.

Marine or terrestrial species? Overwhelmingly, the new species described from Hong Kong are coming from terrestrial ecosystems with 109 species (87.2%) versus “only” 16 species found within marine ecosystems. Nothing completely surprising here as the species that compose biodiversity in Hong Kong are in majority terrestrial. Indeed, if 6500 marine species are expected to be found in the sea surrounding Hong Kong, the number of terrestrial species is likely to be at least 4 times higher, with many still unrecorded or undescribed. Rather similar proportions are encountered at the global scale with about 80% of the known species terrestrial, 15% marine, and 5% encountered in freshwater ecosystems. The value of Hong Kong forests for biodiversity is thus probably unmatched when it comes to finding new species.

Algae, fungi, plants, invertebrates or vertebrates – who are those new species? Insects are the big winner here, with 87 new species described (69.7%) in the past 10 years. If you have a fondness for beetles, then you will be pleased to learn that it is no less than 44 new species (a third of all the new species!) that were added to this spectacular order of insects. Special mention for Hymenoptera with 15 new species described, with my team and I having our fair share here with 10 new ant species described (and more to come!). This majority of insect species is not exactly surprising though considering that they account for about 56% of all described species on the planet and that a few more millions of undescribed species are estimated to be left. Altogether with other groups of invertebrates, such as arachnids, annelids, crustaceans, etc., those account for over 87% of all species described in Hong Kong since 2010.

The other 16 species described were micro-organisms (6), fungi (3), plants (3), vertebrates (3) and one alga. One can be surprised by the fact that so few new plant species have been described, but this could be explained by the long botanical tradition in Hong Kong and China, probably combined with the long-term consequences of deforestation that the territory has experienced over the past centuries; which has most likely reduced the diversity of its initial flora. The description of three new vertebrate species is also notable (amphibian, reptile & fish) indicating that even for groups with relatively large body-size, new species can occasionally be found.

There are no doubts that hundreds if not thousands of species remain to be discovered, appreciated and then protected in Hong Kong. So, if you dream of discovering a new species, here are my advice to maximize your chances: exchange your pair of binoculars for a microscope, your palms for hiking shoes, and look for these tiny organisms surrounding us – insects and other invertebrates obviously, but your chances with fungi are equally high considering the lack of research on this amazing and underestimated group.


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