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Top ten species list says more about humans than cute and creepy critters

The pancake batfish is endearingly ugly, and we may have wiped it out. Prosanta Chakrabarty (Louisiana State University, USA)

When I told my family that the top ten list of new species had been announced, the teenager asked, “Are we on it?”

Although we’re not on the list, our fingerprints are all over it. Homo sapiens remains the top species. We are the ones who named the species and therefore get to decide which species are “new”.

This in itself is a strange idea, since most of these species have been around for millions of years, but in the world of taxonomy they are not official until we give them a scientific name.

If the birth of a species occurs at the moment of speciation, the description of a species is its christening.

This means that there has been a scientific publication detailing the species’ characteristics and linking it to a Latin binomial, which places it in a genus and provides a unique name.

The names of the top ten species are clearly part of their charm. The bioluminescent mushroom has been dubbed M. luxaeterna, which evocatively translates as “eternal light”.

One of the species is T. rex, a scientific name reminiscent of a carnivorous dinosaur. But the generic name Tyrannobdella lets us know that in this case the tyrant is a leech.

The tyrant leech king actually has teeth, and it was discovered inside the nose of a little girl in Peru. Since we are clearly on the menu, this species is worthy of our fear and respect.

Species that made the top ten captured our imagination in one of two ways: either they interacted with our own species or they surprised us in some way.

The leech was found feeding on one of us. The Duiker (a west African antelope) was discovered in a bushmeat market, which means that some us of were eating them.

Another species was found to be eating the Titanic. The iron oxide consuming bacterium H. titanicae was living on the famous boat in the deep ocean, slowly consuming the rust.

This connects this otherwise unassuming life form to our own stories, and points to an unusual lifestyle.

One wonders what natural sources of iron oxide exist in the deep oceans, or if this species has evolved in response to the ill-fated shipping activities of our own species.

Other species sound like something imaginary: jumping cockroaches and pollinating crickets. Jumping cockroaches from South Africa are also known as the Leaproach.

In some cases the species made the list because of good timing. The number one species was described on the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s book The Origin of Species, and was given a name that reminded us of that achievement.

C. darwini is a large orb weaving spider from Madagascar. Spectacular in its own right, it may have only made the top ten due to its namesake.

This is anthropomorphic propaganda, which reasserts the notion that the list celebrates species that delight our own species, for our own reasons.

One species made the list due to bad timing. The pancake batfish was discovered in the Gulf of Mexico just before the Deep Horizon oil spill fouled its habitat. We may have met this species just in time to watch ourselves wipe it out.

The batfish is an endearingly ugly creature that looks like something you might cough up on a bad day.

Its generic name, Halieutichthys, rather appropriately sounds like a form of retching. This does not make it less endearing, but more so.

One rather hopes that the batfish has a bright future despite its interactions with human folly, and for this reason it deserves to be in the top ten.

The top ten species list is intended as a celebration of diversity. It highlights the important role of taxonomists and naturalists, whose work is largely undervalued.

But it is also a deeply anthropomorphic exercise.

Only one species gets to decide which species are in the top 10, and that species is us.

I guess that puts us at the top, even if we’re not on the list.

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