ASK A SCIENTIST
Question: Have you found a new kind of species yet?
Yes, I have! Every day new species of organisms are found and described. The new species I discovered is a red alga, a kind of seaweed. I came across it on a trip to the Caribbean island of Jamaica. Other professors at Binghamton University have described new species of bacteria, mosses, and fossil plants.
Because well over a million species of living organisms have been described, the first challenge is deciding whether your organism has already been recorded. That requires some knowledge of the groups to which the organism might belong. You must understand the features used for recognizing species and then carefully compare those features in your organism and in established species.
Every species has a type specimen. An individual organism is chosen to serve as an example, which we call the type, that is deposited in a public collection, such as a museum. A detailed description of the type must be published in a scientific journal or book. This process preserves the type specimens and allows other workers to examine them when necessary.
Another part of describing an organism is figuring out its relationship to other organisms. Related species are gathered together in genera, genera into families, families into orders, orders into classes, classes into phyla. The interest in a new organism is greater if few close relatives are known. Adding a new species into a genus that contains many species is not nearly as exciting as finding a species that does not fit into a described genus. An organism only distantly related to known species might require naming a new genus and maybe even a new family or order.
One of the responsibilities of describing a new species is to give the species a name. Most names are Latin or Greek terms that describe some feature of the organism. My organism will be named Ramicrusta textilis. The species name I have selected, 'textilis', means woven in Latin, which is a good description of the anatomy of this alga. The type specimen is being deposited in the Smithsonian Institution.
As new methods for study become available, the classification of organisms is continuously reevaluated and refined. The use of DNA methods in recent years has fueled great progress. We think of the Age of Discovery, when sailing ships brought back new organisms from distant shores, as the golden age of exploration of the variety of life. As exciting as those times must have been, this quest has never stopped. Aided by new methods, in recent decades we have gained more understanding of the evolution of the organisms with which we share this planet than in all previous centuries. Still, the job is far from complete. By some estimates, we have only scratched the surface of earth's biodiversity. Millions more species, inconspicuous or in remote places, may still await discovery.
Ask a Scientist appears Thursdays. Questions are answered by faculty at Binghamton University. Teachers in the greater Binghamton area who wish to participate in the program are asked to write to Ask A Scientist, c/o Binghamton University, Office of Communications and Marketing, PO Box 6000, Binghamton, NY 13902-6000 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the Ask a Scientist Web site at askascientist.binghamton.edu. To submit a question, download the submission form(.pdf, 460kb).