In 2010, Ed Hendrycks, a research assistant at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, was examining his museum’s collection of caprellids with José Guerra-Garcia, a researcher visiting from Seville, when the Spanish scientist noticed an unusual specimen.
One of the caprellids—tiny crustaceans whose slender, translucent bodies have earned them the nickname “ghost shrimp” or “skeleton shrimp”—didn’t look like the others in the collection. To a layperson, the odd creature, smaller than a grain of rice, would have been indistinguishable from other members of its genus, Liropus. But to the scientists’ trained eyes, the tiny projections jutting off the animal’s body segments made it distinct.
Furthermore, while past species of Liropus had been found in Mediterranean, Japanese and African waters, this one came from Santa Catalina Island, 20 miles southwest of Los Angeles. A diver had collected the specimens in the 1970s, in a submerged cave 30 feet below the surface of the Pacific. The crustaceans had languished in the vast collections of the museum for decades.
“That’s very common in museums,” explains Hendrycks. “Specimens will sit for years and years, until you finally get a specialist”—in this case, Guerra-Garcia, a caprellid expert—“to look at what you have.”
The California critter’s physical quirks and unique origins led Hendrycks and Guerra-Garcia to suspect that this was something new. In a 2013 paper in the journal Zootaxa, the duo finally made it official: They’d discovered the existence of Liropus minusculus, a heretofore unknown species of skeleton shrimp.
For Hendrycks, the finding was exciting, but not far beyond the ordinary—in his 25 years at the museum, he’s identified more than 90 new species of amphipod, the vast order of crustaceans that includes skeleton shrimp. (Just as horseshoe crabs are not remotely related to Dungeness, skeleton shrimp share only a distant ancestor with the animals you’d eat in scampi. Common names can be weird like that.) Hendrycks had even named one amphipod after his daughter, Victoria. But he wasn’t prepared for the attention that L. minusculus would receive when, out of the blue, it was on the International Institute for Species Exploration’s (IIES’) Top 10 new species list for 2014.
Although few discoveries are as charismatic as the olinguito—an adorable, raccoon-like South American mammal that also cracked the Top 10—the breakneck pace of modern discovery would blow Darwin’s mind. Every year, says Quentin Wheeler, president of the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (which houses the IIES), scientists identify around 18,000 new organisms. That’s around 50 new species each and every day.
The top 10 list, compiled eight years running, is, says Wheeler, a subjective ranking aimed at drawing attention to our biodiversity crisis—to the fact that species are going extinct as quickly as they’re being named. It’s an homage, too, to the legions of scientists who have devoted their lives to advancing human knowledge, to expanding our understanding of our fellow travelers on this planet. While the list is largely populated by organisms from under-explored locales like Antarctica and Ecuador, Wheeler isn’t surprised that one of the species came from our own backyard.
“In Arizona, about a dozen new species of flowering plants are discovered every year,” he says. “There’s plenty of exploration left to be done in North America.”
Within the confines of his museum, Hendrycks, too, is still exploring. He recently received a shipment of amphipods collected during filmmaker James Cameron’s submersible trip into the western Pacific’s Mariana Trench, the deepest place on Earth.
“There should be at least two or three new species from that collection,” says Hendrycks, who may not have made his last appearance among the Top 10.
Ben Goldfarb is an editorial intern at High Country News, where this article was originally published. The author is solely responsible for the content.