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
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0242 GMT (1042 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT