New Discoveries In The World Around Us
Video | Updated 6 months ago
Dr Mark Harvey, Senior Curator, Terrestrial Zoology
We live in one of the last regions of the world where new animal species can be regularly found. Mark tells of the spiders, reptiles, frogs, scorpions, insects, and even ancient subterranean animals being described by WA Museum staff.
Thanks Catherine. Thank you. So yes, as Catherine’s pointed out, my task today is to try and keep you entertained for an hour or so, and I’m going to talk about some of the discoveries that we have been making at the Western Australian Museum in terms of documenting the biota of this wonderful state, and also some of the new species that we’ve been finding. I can’t just talk about all of the species that we’ve discovered at the Museum in the last few years, because there’s been frankly, a few too many of them, but I’m going to give you some of my favourites and some of the little stories that go behind them.
Now, we’re very lucky in Western Australia to live down here in the south-western corner in one of the world’s great biodiversity hotspots, south-western Australia, and to me the whole biodiversity aspects of this whole region are just so fascinating. As a kid growing up in suburban Melbourne, I always horrified my mother by keeping bugs and things in jars and bringing home all sorts of things from the creek that used to be down the back of the suburb I lived in which is now filled in as a car park, but I just continue to be amazed by the level of diversity that we have in somewhere like Australia.
Now this pie chart here shows the number of named species of organisms on Earth today that we think there are. We think there’s about 1,700,000 named species of which the great proportion of those, the largest proportion of those, are in fact invertebrates, so animals without a backbone like you and I, and reptiles and birds and things like that. Vertebrate animals are about 60,000 or so, plants about 300,000 and other things like fungi and other microorganisms about 50,000 named species.
Yet, despite this huge diversity, we’re still finding new species all the time. In fact, a lot of people - scientists have estimated there’s somewhere between – and we’re not sure of the actual number – between something like 5 and 30 million species of organisms living on Earth today, of which so far we’ve only catalogued less than 2 million of them. So we’ve got a huge amount of work to do.
One of the things that I think really inspires some of the work that I try and do, is not just recognising new species, but working out how they’re related to each other, their evolutionary processes, how old the lineages are, why they’ve persisted in places like south-western Australia. Now these are two different representations of the same phenomenon. This is Ernst Haeckel’s evolutionary tree, his Tree of Life that he first published in the 1860s, not long after Charles Darwin’s publication of The Origin of Species in the late 1850s, and here is the concept of things all branching off from a common ancestor. It’s really quite similar to any sort of tree that you might be able to find nowadays on the internet, showing an evolutionary tree all stemming from a common ancestor, when life evolved a long time ago.
Here’s a graphical representation of time - Life on Earth. Our Earth formed about 4.6 billion years ago. It was a Tuesday afternoon I believe, and life began 4 billion years ago. Stromatolites of which you can still see living examples up at places like Hamelin Pool nowadays, are still with us, had formed by then, and it wasn’t until 2 billion years after life evolved, that complex cells, ucariots with a nucleus in the middle of the cell, actually evolved. It took 2 billion years to get to that stage, and that was 2 billion years ago.
By about a billion years ago, a multi-cellular life formed. So cells started to clump together and didn’t start floating around in the seas by themselves, and then simple animals about 6-700 million years ago, things like jellyfish, and then rather rapidly, given that life spent on Earth for 4 billion years, rather rapidly about half a billion years ago, things kicked off and we’re sitting now with the end result of all of that. Some things have become extinct like dinosaurs and many invertebrate groups, but others have persisted to the present day, and that whole process of how things have evolved, how things are related to each other, is one of the things that really fascinates me about studying biodiversity.
But not only do we try and study it, but we have a naming system in which we can communicate with each other. So humans obviously, are one of a few animals, the only organisms that can actually have speech and we can talk to each other, but certainly getting the names right on organisms is phenomenally important, and here’s two representations of a Neolithic painting, cave painting from southern France, of the ancient cows, the aurochs that would have been around a few thousand years ago, this is one of the domesticated rebred aurochs that are around nowadays, and you can see that they’re the same thing, the same species essentially. These would have been painted by our Neolithic cousins, our ancestors, on the caves to signify to each other that this is something’s that probably either dangerous and we need to stay away from, or really, really good tucker and we should try and hunt a couple because in a couple of thousand years’ time everybody’s going to be making hamburgers out of them and we need to get into them right now. So this is a way of communicating with each other about –
Question: How old is Neolithic?
Several thousand years ago. Don’t ask me how many. Nowadays we still use names, and it’s very important that we use scientific names when, as biologists we talk to each other because common names can be so confusing. We’ll talk more about some of the scientific names that we’ve given to animals later on.
Now good names are also important because they convey a whole number of different things, not whether they’re good to eat or bad to eat, but in terms of biology, it can tell us something about their evolutionary history. Once we know that they belong to a distinct group of organisms, we can automatically say “That’s a group of organisms that only lives in Australia. It’s got an evolutionary history like this. We might only see them during spring and winter.” So these names convey all sorts of things to us that we can then use to interpret the world around us.
Now, this is a really good example. I think of how good names are important. All species of the fungus genus Amanita are phenomenally toxic. If you eat any of these, cook and eat them, then you’re likely to die and in fact quite a few people around the world every year die from ingesting these things, but superficially this species of Amanita look quite similar to these Volvariella mushrooms which are in fact, quite tasty. So, being able to recognise them, we can tell each other, as humans we can tell each other between the different species and say to each other “That’s an Amanita. Please do not try and cook that for dinner tonight because we’re all going to die otherwise.”
Now, as I mentioned before, we live in a phenomenally biodiverse world. Scientists are currently finding and naming and describing roughly about 10,000 new animal species every year and most of these are insects. So I showed you the vast proportion of named organisms are invertebrates. Well the vast proportion of those are actually insects. They’re the most abundant group of organisms on Earth today and what I’m going to talk about today is some of the new species that have been found by the Western Australian Museum.
Now, I’m going to start with my favourite animals. People often know that I work on spiders and their relatives. Well, I do most of my research on their relatives which are these tiny little animals called pseudoscorpions. They’re generally only 1 or 2mm long. They’re quite abundant. If you know where to go and find them, you can pick up dozens, hundreds in a day. Mostly they occur in forest leaf litter. You find them under the bark of trees, under rocks. There are subterranean ones that live in caves as well, and they occur all over the world from right in the northern latitudes in places like Sweden and other parts of Scandinavia, and Canada and Alaska, all the way down to the southern Antarctic islands south of New Zealand. They’re very common around here. You can find pseudoscorpions in any of the bushland around here.
These are really ancient arachnids. We have fossil pseudoscorpions. This is a fossil fragment of a pseudoscorpion that’s about 380 million years old, and they found this fossil by dissolving shale sediments that were preserved in New York, in upstate New York, dissolving them with acid, trying to find plant cuticle. They dissolve them out, mount the little fragments up on microscope slides, look at their structure and you can try and determine what sort of plants were around then. Well, they also started pulling out fragments that were obviously not plants and obviously animals, and it took them quite a long time to work out that these fragments were in fact pseudoscorpions which are still living today. It makes them one of the longest lived groups of organisms on Earth basically.
There’s currently about 3,500 named species on Earth at the moment and we’re finding new species all the time. So that figure is slowly rising every year. I probably estimate there might be maybe double that number of species in the world today, maybe 7-10,000 species. Not too sure yet. But one of the species we worked on recently has a direct link to Charles Darwin.
Now Charles Darwin as you know was probably the most famous biologist of his time, developed the Theory of Natural Selection in a publication called On the Origin of Species and in fact, Charles Darwin visited here on his great voyage in the 1830s around the world and actually visited King George Sounds for a little while. Wasn’t too impressed with Australia, in fact hated the place. So he wrote disparagingly about it in his account of his travels, but by this stage he’d been away for a really long time. He was probably already also quite ill before he got back to England as well. So it may have clouded his judgement about Australia. Certainly being away for about four years which is how long his journey took, I think you’d all get a bit annoyed about living on a boat and get a bit annoyed with the whole situation by then.
My wife sometimes jokingly complains to me when I go away on field trips that are three or four weeks in length and I say “Well, Charles Darwin went away for four years. So what’s the problem there?”
So Charles, as you might know, had numerous children, some of whom survived to adulthood. One of those sons, George, son William, son George and one of Charles’ great, great, grandchildren, Christopher Darwin, actually lives in Australia, lives in Sydney. Chris was fortunate enough to be able to be in a position to donate some funds to Bush Heritage Australia about 10 years ago who then purchased the old White Wells Station which is up in the northern Wheatbelt here in Western Australia and set it aside as a conservation reserve. We then about three years ago, myself and quite a few other people, did a full biological survey of the area to see what sorts of animals and plants live there, but also specifically to try and find if we could find any new species on this property. It was a species discovery expedition.
Well, when you work on pseudoscorpions it’s not difficult to find new species. This is a quote from Chris. “We share this planet with millions of other creatures, it’s about time we started to share out the land so the other species can survive,” which to me is a remarkable sentiment.
We were lucky enough to find this little pseudoscorpion and it’s only about 2 or 3mm long, living on the underside of granite rocks on Charles Darwin Reserve. I’ve done a lot of field work throughout the region in the northern Wheatbelt and we haven’t turned it up anywhere else yet. It’s only on the underside of these granite rocks that you can lift off these giant granite domes called monadnocks and I was lucky enough to be able to spend some time working up the scientific paper describing this species and giving it a name.
Since this is Chris here finding his first pseudoscorpion on the underside of a rock – he didn’t know what pseudoscorpions were before we went up there – this is him finding one underneath one of these rocks, and given that he’d personally sunk some money into purchasing the reserve for conservation, I decided to name it christopherdarwini and last year I was able to present him with a photograph of his species which he could hang on his lounge room wall, and he was one of the proudest, most pleased people I’ve seen for a long time actually. So you can have a lot of fun when you name new species and this one was quite fitting. So we’ve got a little pseudoscorpion living here in Western Australia that has a very direct link straight back to Charles Darwin.
Now, I’m going to talk also about some strange spiders that were found recently in Western Australia. About 12 years ago Barbara York Main – some of you might know Barbara – worked at the University of Western Australia for a long time, one of the world’s top authorities on Trapdoor spiders which are these primitive spiders related to funnel web spiders, she found and described two new species of very, very strange white-headed spiders from Western Australia. She described them - actually at the time they were placed in the genus Arbanitis, Arbanitis Ballidu and Arbanitis mcmillani. They’ve since been changed to another genus, but that really doesn’t matter all that much - they’re now placed in the genus Euoplos - and she described these two species in a publication and both of these species came from the central and northern Wheatbelt including some stuff that I’d collected. Very strange animals.
Two years ago, or was it last year, a very strange spider was sent in to the Northern Office of the Department of Environment and Conservation, sent in to Mick Davis, collected by Mr John Cornish from Grass Valley which is just slightly east of Northam, and Mick knew that it was a really odd spider that he’d never seen before and so he sent it in to me, into the Museum, sent us a photograph and asked for the specimen, sent it in to us and we had a look at it, and it turned out to belong to this same group of spiders that Barbara had worked on a dozen years ago. It turned out to be a new species.
So, I sent the information back to Mick. It was all very well and good. He sent the information to Mr Cornish. Everybody was happy. Mick also then sent out a press release which then promptly went, as they say in the common terminology, went “completely viral” on the internet, ending up on all sorts of web servers, news outlets. I was interviewed over the telephone by news stations all over the world. I had emails from Norway and Brazil and France getting information, and it was dubbed in the media an “Albino” spider. Now, I’ll talk about that in a second. But you can see it’s really odd because they’ve got these dark legs and dark body which is standard for all of these Trapdoor spiders, but the carapus, or this head region, is pure white. In fact when we found the first specimens of these 10 years or so ago in the Museum, the first one I saw, I thought “There must be something wrong with it. Why has it got this white head?” and then we got another one, and then we got another one. So it looks like it’s quite real.
What I don’t know is what the females do. So far we’ve only got the males and the males are collected because male Trapdoor spiders, when they emerge as adults, they come out of the ground, out of their burrows, they wander in search of females, they mate with as many females as possible, drop dead and then that’s the end of that. Yeah, a bit of a grim life. I’ve used this joke a million times, but I say that I used to go to university and share a group house with some engineering students and that was their motto in life as well, but not that they were very successful at it. But anyway, where was I? Silly me. I’ve completely forgotten what I was going to say.
So anyway, it ended up on the National Geographic website. That’s right. I was saying that we still don’t know what the female looks like. So the males have got these remarkable white heads. We have no idea why. What I want to know is whether the females have them as well. My guess is they probably don’t, but we haven’t found a female yet to be able to work it out. So we need to head back to one of these places and try and find the burrows. I’ve done that at one place where we know one of this species occur. Haven’t found the burrows yet. Amazing spiders.
Okay, all very well and good. We’ve got over all of the media attention from that. Mick and I have dealt with people ringing and emailing us from all over the world, it’s gone great. Our media statistics at the Museum have gone through the roof because we’ve been mentioned a million times. Then at the end of last year, National Geographic decided to award it as the number three of the Ten Weirdest Life-forms discovered in 2011. So we were beaten in number two position by a new species of chameleon, and in number one position was an embryonic shark that had been found. Instead of having it’s two eyes forming on either side of its head, the eyes had been fused into the middle of its face on top of its head, and it was called the Cyclops Shark. It’s actually apparently not all that unusual. But anyway, the National Geographic though that it was the weirdest thing that had ever been discovered in 2011.
So there we were on the Ten Weirdest Life-forms of 2011, very, very happy to get that sort of attention, but then the media started all over again. So we had emails and we had telephone calls. But it just shows that here in Western Australia, we’re finding things that people in other parts of the world and other parts of Australia think are so remarkable that they can end up on National Geographic’s top ten life-forms for a particular year.
Question: Was that the only one from Australia?
Is it the only one? No, there are two other species that have already –
Question: But was that the only one of the 10?
Of the 10? Yes it was the only Australian representative. Thank you.
Now the media dubbed this thing the “Albino” spider. Now, for those of you who know anything about albinos. Albinos are organisms that completely lack any pigment in their skin basically and so there are sometimes albinic people and also some animals become albinos as well. It’s pretty rare though, and as you can see, this thing is not an albino. It does have a white carapace, top of the head on the cephalothorax. The rest of the body is not white though. So, I didn’t call it an albino spider, but on the internet you get these blogs and so people would be writing on the blogs, sort of “Oh that stupid scientist in Australia Mark Harvey has got no idea. It’s not an albino. Albinos are… completely lack pigment. It’s only got a white head.” Well that’s what I kept saying to the media, but the media kept calling it “Albino” spider. But lovely, lovely spiders.
Now, coming closer down to the Albany region, I’m going to talk about Assassin spiders. So there’s all sorts of groovy spiders out there. Assassin spiders are a particular family of spiders. They’re very, very ancient. This is a side view of one here. This is the head coming up here. The head’s all raised up on a big stalk. These are the eyes at the front here. There’s the abdomen, the legs, different shots of different species here, and assassin spiders are called assassin spiders because they only feed on other spiders. So they assassinate other spiders, and here’s one here. This is a picture of a Malagacea, a Madagascan Assassin spider, hanging upside down. There’s the abdomen. There’s the head on a great big long stalk, eyes on the top of the head here, here are the fangs sitting down here and here is a small spider that it’s caught. This is one of the Australian ones, long fangs, catching another spider. So they only feed on other spiders. The most amazing animals.
We’re really lucky because they occur here in Western Australia. In fact, they occur across the bay in Torndirrup National Park. They occur commonly over at the wind farm and also in eastern Australia. They also occur in Madagascar and South Africa and we have ancient fossils of these things dating all the way back a couple of hundred million years into places like Europe and parts of Asia. We’ve got these wonderful fossils which quite recognisably belong to this group of animals, but they no longer occur in the Northern Hemisphere. They only occur in the Southern Hemisphere.
So we were able to get some work started on this group a few years ago by assisting Verve Energy in their plans to extend the wind farm and the Museum was asked to advise on places where the new tracks could be put in and where the wind farms could be situated, to make sure that it didn’t impinge upon the population of Assassin spiders in there because that particular species which occurs along the south coast, is listed as a threatened species, and they’re obliged to make sure that there was no problem in wiping out any population. So we provided some advice for them. We then later on got a research grant with a postdoctoral student of mine to look at the entire fauna in Australia.
This is the person who did the work, Mike Rix. He works in my lab at the museum. When Mike and I started this study, there were five named species of Assassin spiders in Australia; two here from WA, the one along the south coast described by an American colleague 20 years ago, one from the Stirling Ranges that I described about 10 years ago, and there were three species in eastern Australia. Mike was able to recognise 27 species in eastern Australia of which 24 of them were new species, and also he worked out that all of the species found in southern Australia, so south-western Australia, Kangaroo Island in South Australia and also the species in Victoria, in fact belonged to a new genus.
So we were able to describe this new genus and we called it Zephyrarchaea, Archaea being the original genus – Archaea just means ancient, really old – and Zephyr means wind, or especially a southern wind. The first species that had been ever known of this group occurs at the Albany wind farm, and let’s face it, you guys live in Albany. It’s pretty windy down here sometimes, right? So we thought that Zephyrarchaea was a good name, the windy archaeid spider. Mike recognised nine species, including seven new species. So we went from five species up to 36 species after three years of doing this work.
Now what’s fascinating about the Western Australian species is that a couple of them tend to be fairly widespread, but the others are very restricted. So this is the original species, the one that occurs at the wind farm across the road here. It’s actually found to be quite widespread in the forest and heathland systems across the south coast, including a population at the Porongurups here. There’s a species that’s found in the Marri Jarrah forests over on the western side of the south west here, fairly widespread. There’s one species that’s only known from Cape Le Grand, Zephyrarchaea marki. It’s not named after me. It’s named after Mike’s father-in-law who’s first name’s Mark. Good name Mark. So that species is only found there.
Then within the Stirling Ranges, we found three species, one that I described a few years ago, plus two more species. This is a map of the Stirling Ranges. You can see that Zephyrarchaea robinsi lives in the upland regions on the – for those of you who know the Stirling Ranges - on the eastern side of Chester Pass, so from Bluff Knoll through to Ellen Peak. We found them right up on the tops, the very peaks of all of those ranges, the mountains up there. Melindae only occurs on the top of Toolbrunup, right up near the summit and also nearby on Mt Hassel, and Zephyrarchaea barrettae lives over at Mt Magog and Talyuberlup massif, and this is a really common pattern that we see amongst invertebrates, time and time again; a species on the eastern side, one on the summit of Talyuberlup and one on the summit of Toolbrunup. We see this pattern time and time again. So it wasn’t a big surprise to us, but a fascinating discovery, being able to find and discover new assassin spiders in Australia in the 21st Century.
Mike was able to also collect enough samples to do DNA work on them, and DNA is absolutely fantastic nowadays because as you’ve probably seen on television, DNA can help solve all sorts of murder mysteries. You can find out who the killer was with a tiny scrap of their DNA. Well in this case, we can use DNA, compare the DNA amongst all of the different species and find out who’s related to each other. Sometimes by just looking at morphology, so just looking at them down a microscope, we’re not able to work out who’s related to who, because they’re different, but they’re slightly different and it doesn’t really give you a lot of hints about relationships. DNA is the perfect tool to do this.
So this is the new genus down here, all related to each other. This is the eastern Australian genus up here, all related to each other, all evolved from a common ancestor, and these are some of the ones found in other parts of the Southern Hemisphere in Madagascar and South Africa. So this really helped us here.
You can also do these really fancy, using computer programs with DNA data, and you can actually get a date on when the things might have evolved from each other. So they’re quite specialised programs, but it looks here as though the Australian Assassin spider fauna, which this is this big branch here, it looks as though it evolved - it separated from all of the other ones about 60 million years ago, give or take 10 or so million years, which is a very common pattern. This is when the climate in Australia was starting to change a lot, and then after that stage, all of the species started to diverge from each other during the last 20 million years, which is another common pattern we see in lots of organisms persisting through to the present day.
If you go right back to the base of the Archaeid group altogether which is here, it looks as though the group evolved about 100 million years ago. So these things were around during the time of the dinosaurs. The dinosaurs didn’t make it when the meteorite hit the world, but little spiders like this, who quite a few of them were probably squished by big dinosaurs as they ran through the forest, have survived to the present day, and they’re living on your doorstep. They’re right across the bay here. Wonderful, wonderful animals.
So we’ve also been lucky enough to work on some other spiders that have very, very similar distributions to Assassin spiders. This is a new species that we found in the Stirling Ranges, also when we were looking for Assassin spiders. This species Calcarsynotaxus benrobertsi lives down here in the Stirling Ranges. We’ve never, ever seen it anywhere else and we’ve done a large amount of field work in south-western Australia. The only other member of its genus lives in Lamington National Park in south-eastern Queensland. Now we think that the other likely areas where you would get these spiders in Australia have been surveyed really well for spiders and we think that if they were around, they would have been picked up by now. Maybe not. We also think that maybe this is an example of a really ancient group of spiders that have persisted for a very long time, but for some reason or another, have become extinct in other areas, but hanging on in places like Lamington National Park, up on top of the tallest mountains and here in the Stirlings. So once again, another very, very special spider.
We also a few years ago described this species Perissopmeros darwini. Perissopmeros is found in south-eastern Australia, similar sorts of habitats to where you find these other ancient spiders. Once again, the only specimen we’ve found has been in the Stirling Ranges. In fact, I collected it in the 1990s and since then that part of the Stirlings has been burnt once or twice and we’ve been back. We haven’t found anymore. They’ll be there somewhere. We just haven’t been able to track them down, but a really special spider here in south-western Australia.
Now, we don’t just work on spiders and pseudoscorpions in my lab. We’ve also done some work on millipedes and in particular, Karen Edward, who was a student of mine – she now has finished her PhD – she was studying this genus called Atelomastix. Both of the named species of Atelomastix were described in 1911, so 100 years ago by an Austrian scientist from specimens collected here in south-western Australia. Karen did this big, big work on this genus and the way we study millipedes is a little bit the same way that we study spiders. The best way to tell the species apart is to actually look at the male genitalia. Now the reason is that in things like arthropods, the male genitalia, in this case it’s modified legs near the front of the body in millipedes, each of these modifications are slightly different within each species. So you can see that this is the male gonopods of each of the different species of the genus, and the shape of them are slightly different. Within a species every single specimen has exactly the same shaped gonopod, exactly the same shape, but between the species there are subtle differences. So that’s why we think they’re all different species.
Karen was able to find a total of 28 species in this genus. The two originally described species, this one here, Atelomastix nigrescens is found throughout the Darling Range and a population down on the coast here in the south west. Atelomastix albanyensis is found down in the Albany region, plus she found a single new species up in the mid west, here up in the Goldfields, Atelomastix bamfordi, and a whole series of new species ranging from Ravensthorpe Range all the way down through the Karri forest to down past Walpole-Pemberton region, and she named all of these new species, plus a further eight species found further to the east over in the Esperance Cape Le Grand, Recherche Archipelago area.
Once again, these species here are the ones all found in isolated, often slightly hilly montane areas rather than being down on the coast. So, she single-handedly took this genus from two species to 28 species in the single study that she did, a remarkable effort, and this sort of pattern turns up time and time again in all of the groups that we study; small numbers of named species, large numbers of undescribed species sitting in our museum collections waiting for us to find the time or the funding to actually get working on them.
Now I’m going to talk also briefly about something – a project that I was involved, very lucky to be involved with a couple of years ago. This person here is my daughter Frances and I was contacted by her school teacher about three years ago when she was in Year 9 and said “There’s this thing called BioGENEius Challenge which is a competition that’s run in Western Australia amongst secondary school students and the idea is they do a science project. They then have that judged. If they win - there are two winners in the Western Australian section – the winners of the Western Australian section get to fly to America to compete against the only other two countries in the world that are part of this challenge, and that’s the USA and Canada. I think there’s about eight kids selected from the USA, two from Canada and two from Western Australia.
I said “Well that’s all very well and good, but what’s the competition about?” He said “Oh it’s about biotechnology and how it can be applied in a science project.” I said “Well, I don’t know much about biotechnology. What are you ringing me for?” He said “Just look at the website and have a think about it and see if you can think of something that might spring to mind.” So, I did look at the website. I actually had to look up biotechnology on the internet to find out what it was. So it’s using things like genetic applications to try and improve the good of humankind. So, all sorts of projects might be in agricultural or research systems or looking for cures for cancers and other diseases, but using mostly genetic manipulation.
So, I thought about it and I thought “Well we do DNA stuff in our laboratory,” so I thought “Well maybe she could do a project where she looks at the DNA of a bunch of spiders, looks at their morphology using the microscope and tries to work out how many species there are of this particular group.” In this case it turned out to be in the Pilbara, because we have a lot of samples because of all of the environmental monitoring that goes up there with the mining industry, and then maybe she can then feed that information back to the mining companies and say “Well, if there are say, a restricted relictual species, maybe that’s somewhere where the mining companies shouldn’t go because there’s a species there that’s found nowhere else.”
So, I rang the school teacher back and I said “Look, I think we’ve got a project we can run with here.” So to cut a long story short, she worked in my lab on and off for a few months, spent her school holidays doing part of it, and she was very lucky and did such a good job with the project, she actually won the competition and her best friend at her school was the other winner. So, these two girls, plus their parents, me included, and people from the Department of Commerce who funded this, we all flew to Chicago for a week to compete against the Americans, which was a big thrill.
Frances and Emily got to meet two former presidents of the United States backstage at the competition. It’s held as part of a big biotech conference in Chicago – 25,000 people at the conference and one of the guest speakers at lunch time one day was Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. So the girls have got photographs of themselves shaking hands with two former presidents. You go “That’s really cool. I would have liked to have done that when I was 15.”
But one of the things that’s just happened is that we’ve taken Francis’s research, all the DNA work that she did, all the images she took of the specimens and the fact that she found four new species, and this was written up in the media at the time. “Kid finds four new species.” Good story. We took all of this work and we helped Frances publish a scientific paper actually getting those names validated because that’s the only way if you find a new species, to get it recognised. You’ve actually got to publish it in a scientific paper.
So, myself, other people in my lab and Francis, we started to work on this paper, and I said to Francis, “Okay, you found four new species. You’ve now got to think up names for them.” So, the first one she kept calling the Honey Spider because it had this beautiful amber, yellowy colour to it. So I gave her a Latin dictionary one day, which I’m sure every house has got a Latin dictionary in it – we’ve got several because I use it all the time, thinking up new names – I said “Find the word for honey,” and so she came back and she found this word mellosa which means “honey coloured”. I said “Very good. That will do.” She wanted to name one for her sister Ellen. So she named it Aname ellenae. She named one for her mum, my wife Aname marae and the fourth one, who knows what this name is? No? Who’s read Harry Potter or seen the movies? No Harry Potter fans here? Can’t believe it. I was talking to a school group this morning and I showed them this slide and they went “Aragog.” So, Aragog is the giant spider in book two of Harry Potter that terrifies – well you should have known it really – so terrifies – Have you read the book? Have you seen the –
Question: I’ve seen most of the movies.
Okay. Have you seen Aragog? Yeah okay. Big scary spider okay. So Frances decided to name it Aragog. So this is great. The paper was published a month or two ago and within a week there was at least one Harry Potter blog site on the internet that turned up basically saying “There’s this kid in Australia who’s described a spider called Aragog. Whoa. It’s so cool.” It got a huge amount of media attention, the fact that a teenager found and described four new species. So a great story with the little Aragog –
Question: When you steal a name like that, do you have to get the author’s permission?
No, we don’t actually. Well, I hope we don’t or she’s going to sue the pants off us, and she can afford better lawyers than we can. Yeah. I’m hoping she’ll be pleased with it.
So, this is the girls in Chicago, in front of their posters. It got written up in all sorts of different places. So they did a great job, and this is the scientific paper. This is the front page. So there’s Francis’s name there, Frances Harvey, and the other people in my lab including myself helped write it up. So she’s now a published author.
Now, also in the Museum we work on a whole bunch of other things as well. There’s a lot of vertebrates still. So frogs, reptiles that are still being found. Even new species of mammals occasionally as well. But the story I want to talk to you about is about a new species of Taipan that was found a few years ago by the Museum. Now Taipans are amongst the most toxic snakes in the world. They’re related to Brown Snakes. There are two known species; one here in northern Australia and southern New Guinea, and the other in the inland desert regions of Australia. During a trip to the Central Ranges which is in Western Australia near the border of the Northern Territory and South Australia, a joint expedition between the Western Australian Museum and the South Australian Museum a few years ago, a really odd snake was found.
This is the snake here being picked up by the guys. They had no idea what it was. They thought it was a weird brown snake and it was only after they got the specimen back to the museum and after they did some DNA work, did they work out that it was actually a weird species of Taipan and it turned out to be a new species of Taipan. It was the first one described in 125 years. We think it’s extremely toxic although nobody knows. We think it’s extremely toxic because the other species of Taipans are the first and third most venomous snakes in the world, land snakes in the world. So this one’s probably up there as well somewhere. Since then, the Adelaide Zoo’s been back up to nearby regions in South Australia and they currently have two that they’re breeding in Adelaide Zoo to try and learn more about them. The guys were really lucky because the International Institute for Species Exploration – how does that sound as a name? – voted this Taipan as one of the top five new species of 2007 in their international, and once again, the only one from Australia. So that’s great.
So these are three of the four guys who described it. I actually don’t have a photograph of Brad Maryan. So I couldn’t include it. But as I said before, they confirmed it with DNA and as they said, finding a new big species of snake in Australia in Central Australia, was totally unexpected and really exciting. So it’s not just the little squidgy things that I work on. We’re finding new big things all the time as well.
Now, finding a new species is easy. Actually finding the specimens, especially in Western Australia is actually quite simple. These are my daughters when they were little, and when Ellen was mid-way between these two ages, she actually found one of these millipedes, one of these new millipedes, a different group to the ones I was talking about before. We were actually on holidays for a week down in Yallingup and as you do when you’re on holidays – I know I do it on my holidays – we look on the underside of rocks for creepy crawlies. So, Ellen was helping me one day and she was so small she couldn’t roll a rock over. She said – she was only about three or four years old – “Come on dad. Turn that rock over.” So, I pulled it over and there were three millipedes. She helped me get them into a vial. We took them back to the Museum. They turned out to be a new species we’d never, ever seen before.
Now I haven’t had the time or the students to actually work on this millipede yet, so it’s still undescribed, but even little kids can find new species in Western Australia. It’s just now a process of finding the time to actually work on it and give it a name.
Now, this is a little bit embarrassing okay. So I was out at Credo Station last year which is north of Coolgardie, doing one of these big survey trips, one of these other ones, another one where we were looking - a species discovery trip - looking for new species. I knew there was likely to be a particular group of Trapdoor spiders in the area, a genus called Conothele and I had been walking around all morning at a particular place looking for Trapdoor spider burrows in the ground. Now, sometimes they’re really obvious and sometimes they’re not, and especially this genus, especially when you get a bit of dust over the burrow lid, it can fill in all the little crevices and it makes it really, really hard to see. So, the people I was with actually wandered off – we were in this particular part of the reserve – wandered off to look for other things.
So I’m walking around sort of looking for spiders, looking on the ground, I couldn’t find anything. I’d been doing it for a couple of hours, and I thought “Well the others have wandered off.” I’d been drinking a lot of water. So I thought “Well, I need to take a pee here.” So I thought “Well being a guy, it’s really simple,” okay. So standing there, as I started to wee on the ground, I suddenly noticed this little circular thing here which was the burrow I’d been searching for all morning and I’d peed right on top of this poor spider. So I went “Ooh” and I finished off somewhere else so I didn’t completely drown this poor spider.
So, I then sat there and I thought “Now what am I going to do? I’ve weed all over this thing.” The first thing you do, you take a photograph of it, right, so you can see that it’s all wet. This is really embarrassing okay. So it’s all wet. So I thought “Well I found one. We need to actually collect the spider so we can take it back to the Museum. We’ve got the DNA, we’ve got the specimen.” So, I started to dig it up. You had to dig a great big hole. Got the burrow lid because we keep the burrow lids, and then kept the spider.
So it was great, I was pretty happy with myself and then the others came back and they said “How did you go?” I said “I got one,” and they said “That’s great. Where is it?” So I showed them the spider - that’s the spider there – and I had it in a jar. They said “Where’s the burrow lid?” I said “I’ve got the burrow lid.” “Oh can we have a look?” and I said… They said “Why not?” I said “You wont like it.” They said “Why?” I said “Smells a little bit.” They said “What’s that smell of?” and so I had to fess up then. I said “I only found it because I took a leak and I peed on the poor thing.” So they said “Yeah, we don’t want to look at the lid either. Thanks very much.”
So I took it back to camp and I dried it out in the sun and the next day I said “Okay, now you can look at it,” when it wasn’t smelling quite so much. So, it’s a bit embarrassing that the state spider biologist has to pee on spider burrows to find them, but that’s a true story.
Question: That’s very lucky.
Yeah. Now, as I mentioned before, south-western Australia is one of only 34 global biodiversity hotspots, the only one in Australia, huge numbers of plant species, most of which are only found in south-western Australia and we think the invertebrates and other aspects of the biota are going to be just as fascinating.
Now I mentioned before that in finding a new species, describing a new species, you can’t just think of a name, chuck it up on the internet and that’s it, that’s what it’s called forever and a day. We actually have to prepare a scientific paper, like that one I showed you before of Francis’s. So, the processes are, you need to prepare a written description – I’ll show you what one looks like in a minute. You need to provide images - what they look like, drawings, photographs of the animals. If you’ve got supporting data like DNA information, that’s great. You need to think of a name – that’s fine. “Aragog” is good. “Christopher Darwini” is good. Sometimes when we do revisions and we’ve got 20, 30, 40, 50 new species, thinking of 50 new names can be a little bit of a challenge. You have to write it up as a scientific paper, submit it to a scientific journal and the editor has to go through it. It goes out to two referees and it comes back to the editor, and then when it’s finally printed in the journal, the name becomes valid, and it’s a very long, slow process.
This is one of the things you’ve got to do. When you describe a new species, all the specimens that we have are known as the type specimens, and we select one specimen as the holotype. So in the future, if anybody disputes or has a query about what a particular species looks like, there’s always one specimen that we go back to that says “That’s the specimen the scientists use. That’s the holotype,” and where it comes from is important. In this case it’s the Zuytdorp Cliffs up in the Gascoyne and it’s very important that we keep the holotype specimens in a special place in the Museum. We’ve got a special room. Scientifically they’re invaluable.
Now this is a written description of a new species of pseudoscorpion from South America that I published a few years ago and it just shows you I guess, how much work goes into a proper description. So, this is where we list all the specimens that we had. The description starts here, it goes down here. I included a distribution map showing where the specimens came from, and other species of the genus in South America. I did all these lengths and widths calculations of various structures and I produced a graph to show the different species in the genus. That’s what the whole animal looks like. They’re all the line drawings I did showing bits and pieces – how you distinguish them from other species. That’s the written description. So you have to type out how many hairs it has on its head, what colour it was, all these sorts of things. You write it all out like this. More drawings here. Scanning electron micrographs to show details of little hairs here on the body and more descriptions here. This takes a really long time to put together. So it’s a long drawn-out process.
But, you can have a lot of fun with your names. So, years ago – I also work on these little animals called schizomids. They kind of look like spiders but – amongst arachnids you’ve got spiders, you’ve got scorpions, you’ve got pseudoscorpions. There are a bunch of other groups as well, including schizomids - it’s another group again - and I’ve worked on these, and I found a new species up in Cape Range. In 1992 I placed it in a new genus and the reason I called it the genus Draculoides was that it’s kind of got these extra little processes on its mouth parts that look like little Dracula fangs like down here, and it lived in a cave – cave, bat, fangs; Draculoides. Hysterically funny. This is about as much fun as you can have as a biologist right.
Now a few years later we found a second species of this group and I thought “What are we going to call this one?” As a kid I remember reading the book Dracula as a teenager. It’s written by Bram Stoker. So I thought “Let’s call it Draculoides bramstokeri,” and so that’s good fun. So it didn’t get any media attention for a long time, but then like last year and the year before, it suddenly, it must be because of the internet, it kind of went gang busters again, and it got written up. It’s been written up in a whole series of different science magazines. So last year there was a full page or half page article in a Brazilian science magazine all written in Portuguese - I think I know what it says, but it mentions my name. It was in a German magazine last year as well. I happened to be in Europe at a conference and I knew when it was coming out and I was in the airport in Frankfurt and I found the magazine. I picked it up and there’s that picture in there talking about Draculoides bramstokeri. So, if you think up funky little names you can have a little bit of fun.
So these are the animals. They’re quite cute. Some of the species actually live in subterranean environments. All the species that live in the Pilbara, actually live underground. They come from tropical rainforest ancestors, but now, they live in these caverns underground, and they’re not big caves that you can walk into. These just happen to be mesas or these flat-topped hills which are full of holes, some only as thick as my middle finger, but others as big as basketballs, and it turns out, there’s this entire subterranean fauna that lives underground and it survived there for millions of years. This whole area dried out probably about 10 million years ago. These things have survived since then living inside these mesas, and because the mesas are no longer connected to each other, there’s gaps in between them and the substrate underneath them, there’s no holes for these things to move backwards and forwards, we found there’s individual species in each of these mesas moving up the river valley.
So, we were able to confirm this with DNA work once again. So, the mining company who wanted to mine these mesas up in the Robe River Valley funded all this research. We told them the bad news, that every single mesa has its own species of schizomid and other things living in them, and this had the effect of them actually limiting the scope and the extent of the mine so that hopefully these things will be conserved into the future, and the EPA were quite happy with that. So they’re not going to mine all of the mesas.
This work went on, but of course when the announcement first came through from the EPA that they were not going to allow the mesa to go ahead, this was the reaction by The West Australian. This is five years ago now. “Rare spider” – well it’s not a spider, but that’s okay – “Rare spider threatens to stop $12b iron mine,” and this is the blind – even though it’s got eyes – spider giving the proverbial single-fingered salute off to the mining company. So this on the day was a big news item. It just went gang busters. I was on the phone and interviewed on the radio all day, but eventually there was a compromise and the EPA allowed the new footprint of the mine to go ahead.
So, what we’re trying to do, I’m not only interested in finding new species and describing them, but trying to have some sort of impact in terms of conservation. That’s why we work on things like Assassin spiders in the Stirling Ranges, these sorts of things living in the mesas. Let’s try and understand what’s there, what it’s related to, how it evolved, where it came from, to inform the conservation debate and where some of the mining work can go ahead in places like the Pilbara.
Now, I’m going to run you through some of my favourite crazy names that scientists have given animals and plants over the years. This is a wasp that lives in Western Australia described in the 70s. It’s called Aha ha. That’s the genus, that’s the species. It’s also a palindrome which spells backwards the same way as forwards. That’s a good one. I like that. There’s a bat called Ia io. I don’t know why they called it that, but it’s pretty short. Plesiothrips, that’s a type of insect. The species is o, Plesiothrips o. There’s a beetle called Agra phobia. The person must have had some sort of psychological problem to do that. There’s a fly called Pieza pi. So, that’s a good one. I like that. This is a jellyfish called Zyzzyzus which I believe in any alphabetical list of organisms of generic names, this one comes last. There’s nothing after it and I think people also strive to be the most number of a’s as well. This one is a plant genus that’s derived solely from vowels. There’s no consonants in there at all.
About the same time as the movie Apocalypse Now came out in the ‘80s, a colleague of mine in America was working on a spider genus called Apopyllus and so he called his new species Apopyllus now instead of Apocalypse Now. That’s a really tiny snail apparently, Ittibittium. There’s a snail called Ba humbugi and I don’t know the story behind this one, but I think maybe it was a scientist who found way too many new species and thought “Oh my goodness, not another new species.” Ohmyia omya is a fly that I think a similar situation, “Oh, so many new species.” This one’s a little bit sad. It’s a parrot that had become extinct on one of the islands in the Indian Ocean and it’s Julius Caesar’s famous quote Vini vidivici.
We’ve also named a lot of species, or scientists have named species after famous people in the arts as well. So Beethoven has a wasp genus named after him. Mozart has a wasp as well. Miles Davis, the great jazz trumpeter, has a trilobite genus named after him. Frank Zappa, the guitarist from the ‘70s and ‘80s, has a fish genus named after him. Orson Welles, the great playwright and radio personality and director, has a spider genus from Hawaii named after him. The band The Beatles, has a worm species named after them, beatlesi and even Mick Jagger has a trilobite named after him as well.
Now, I’m old enough to have grown up in my formative years of enjoying music in the late teens and early 20s and you might be horrified to learn this, but I actually am into punk music, so especially British punk from the ‘70s, so bands like The Stranglers, The Buzzcocks, The Sex Pistols, The Damned and The Clash, and I was so jealous when a colleague of mine in the ‘80s described these five species named after the members of the Sex Pistols. So they’re named after Sid Vicious, Johnny Rotten, Steve Jones, Paul Cook and Glen Matlock, and I thought “Why didn’t I think of that?” and I’ve got no idea whether Johnny Rotten knows that he’s got a species of trilobite named after him. Sid doesn’t because Sid’s long dead, but the rest of them might not be aware of it. But I did notice in the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games a few weeks ago that they actually played a good snippet of one of the Sex Pistols’ songs at the opening ceremony. So we’ve come mainstream. If it’s at the Olympics, it must be art right, even though their songs were banned in the ‘70s.
But the worst names ever were composed by a Russian biologist in the 1920s. Now he was actually based in Siberia when he did this work. My theory is the winters were a little bit too long and a little bit too cold for him to come up with especially this bottom one here. So absolutely appalling. I’m not even going to try and say it, but it’s a good one.
Now, you might have heard Catherine say before that just recently we were really fortunate to be able to talk to David Attenborough when he came to the museum. He was coming to Perth to give a public lecture at the Convention Centre, the Entertainment Centre in Perth. He’s also travelling in eastern Australia as well. At about the same time, there was a paper being published by a colleague of mine in Queensland on a new genus of very small spiders that we had decided to call Prethopalpus with about 40 new species ranging from Australia all the way up through to the Himalayas in Asia, and one of the new species – and I thought of this about two years ago – one of the new species we decided to call Prethopalpus attenboroughi. For me growing up in my teens and even as a kid, reading his books, his Zoo Quest books, finding them at the local library was a complete thrill and also to see his documentaries. Ever since 1979 when he did Life on Earth and all those ones have come since. Absolutely amazing story teller, garnering some of the best documentary footage you’ll ever see of animals and plants anywhere in the world.
Now we heard that he was coming to Perth and about the same time as this paper was going to be published, and like I said before, the process of getting these papers published takes a really long time. So I went to my Director and said “Do you think we can like write to him and say ‘Look We’ve just described a spider after you. Would you like to come and receive a framed photograph of the spider and we can say hello and all that sort of stuff?’” He said “Yeah, right. Compose a letter and we’ll send it off.” So we did. I wrote a letter. It got sent off. We didn’t hear anything for a few weeks and thought “Oh well, maybe he didn’t get the letter,” and “Maybe he’s not interested.”
Then out of the blue we got a fax back from him, directly from him, not his touring company, but from him, saying he’d be delighted to come to the Museum, organised with the touring company to organise a time. He flew in on like the Wednesday or Thursday of a couple of weeks ago. His talk was on the Saturday evening at the Convention Centre and he set aside an hour or two on the Saturday morning. So we were all so totally excited being able to meet him. He came for about an hour, an hour and a half. He was absolutely wonderful. He was so gracious and so humble. He spoke to everybody who wanted to speak to him including my daughters who were just about beside themselves as though they’d met the rock star of their dreams, and I must confess, I was just so thrilled to be able to meet him. He was just so lovely. As I said, he’s so gracious.
This is a photograph of me. I did that for an hour and a half. I grinned like that for an hour and a half, and this is the other author of the paper. This is Barbara Baehr who works at the Queensland Museum - we worked on this paper together – and this is the photograph that we presented with him of this tiny little spider. It’s literally 1mm long. It only is known from one island in the Torres Strait. If you’re interested in hearing his acceptance speech - he spoke for about 10 minutes - and seeing more photographs of this series, check out the Museum’s website. We’ve uploaded the video. It’s got three minutes of me waffling on with my gushy speech explaining why we named the species after him, followed by a much more interesting 10 minutes from David Attenborough.
What I did learn in watching this footage – I hate watching footage of myself and I hate listening to my voice. I absolutely detest it. I’ve never got used to it – what I did learn in sitting through with my family watching this three minutes of pain of me and David, is that when I give talks, I wave my hands a lot. I didn’t realise until I’d watched it. So I’m a little bit self conscious today standing in front of you because I’ve seen this footage recently, but check it out and you can see me doing this. I’m very pleased to point out also that Sir David waved his hands a lot as well. So I’m in remarkable company. So it’s great.
Look, in summary, I think that living in somewhere like Western Australia, one of these biological, biodiversity hotspots of the world is such a thrill, it’s such a pleasure and it’s such an honour. I love working on all of these different sorts of animals, learning about what my staff are doing all the time. These are some of the species that Museum staff have described and named over the years. I’d like to thank you very much for your attention. You’ve been wonderful and I’m happy to answer any questions you might have. Thank you.
Chevron is a presenting partner of In the Wild West lecture series.