New Species

Cross a burro with a horse and you get a mule, not a new species. Are there any new species left to discover?

As humans, we have a vested interest in discovering and understanding every species in this world. After all, much of our survival is tied directly or indirectly to other species and the better we understand them, the better we can utilize them for our own survival. Selfish, yes, but it does have the side benefit of helping to preserve species.

Despite our best efforts, scientists estimate that there are still millions of species to be discovered and in many cases, it is a race against time to discover, study and properly classify new species even while their habitats are destroyed around them.

In other cases, newly described species have been in plain view for centuries but until genetic analysis could unravel some mysteries, were considered a subspecies. Idaho’s Cassia crossbill is an example. Until 2017 when geneticists found it to be a separate species, it was considered a subspecies of the red crossbill. The same is true for two new whales, Rice’s whale and Ramari’s beaked whale, both thought to be subspecies until more thoroughly studied morphologically and genetically. This “genetic species”concept could lead to thousands of “new” species by splitting existing species.

So, what is a species? That is a difficult question without a good answer. The most common definition still centers on whether or not two species can interbreed and produce sexually viable offspring with the classic example being the horseXburro cross that produces a sterile mule—you can’t breed two mules and get another mule. This definition falls apart with species that reproduce asexually or when species separated geographically are suddenly in contact with each other. Polar bears and grizzly bears, two separate species, are coming into more contact with climate change and are producing viable offspring. Are they now to be considered one species? Wolves can breed with coyotes and dogs and produce hybrids that are sexually viable. Clearly this definition needs work and continues to spark endless debate among scientists.

So, avoiding the genetic species concept, are there still species, ones never before described by modern science, being discovered today? The answer is an unequivocal yes. Granted, most of the species left to discover are invertebrates and many are microscopic. That doesn’t make them less important but they are sometimes less charismatic and people usually can’t relate well to them. Even then, many fascinating invertebrates, including an nine-inch-long aquatic centipede, an eight-armed brittlestar and a new octopus were described in 2021.

The discovery of the Okapi in 1901 was thought to be the last great mammal discovery. However, the giant forest hog and the Nyala, a large antelope, were soon discovered. A long period followed where no large mammals were discovered. In 1971, the Chacoan peccary, known from the fossil record but thought extinct (except by the natives there), was re-discovered. Then in 1993, the Saola, from Vietnam, was described and ignited a firestorm of interest. This animal, a member of the Bovidae (cattle) family, was so different in appearance and morphology that it merited its own genus.

In the last ten years, the world’s smallest vertebrate (arguably), a tiny chameleon about ¾-inches long, was discovered, along with a number of other reptile and amphibian species new to science. Several additional mammals, including several primates, a coconut-eating, 2-pound Vangunu giant rat, and a weasel-like carnivore, the Olinguito, were also discovered.

New species are usually found to be endemic to specific areas and often with very constricted ranges. Many are restricted to a single island or small region. Also, most new species come from parts of the world that are less developed and highly bio-diverse to begin with. Most discoveries come from places like South America, Africa and southeast Asia although anyplace can be harboring a new species.

As habitat is gobbled up in many places, it is likely that undiscovered species are blinking out before we even have a chance to make their acquaintance. It is sad to not know one’s neighbors on this planet, sadder still when we are the cause of their demise.


Help Idaho Wildlife

When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.

C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles! 

See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live. 

And tell them that you heard about it from!

Wildlife License Plates

Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.

No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.

Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.

Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program.

I think it is time we let the Legislature know that Idahoan support wildlife funding and that we would like to see these generic plates come to fruition.

"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson

That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.

Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.

Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.

Readers Write:

"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman

"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.

To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version 


Copies are also available at:

Post Register

Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)

Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls

Harriman State Park, Island Park

Museum of Idaho

Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming

Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah

Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho

TAX DAY is coming! Here is a chance to do something good with a bit of your tax return and make the day less painful.

Donate part of your tax return to support wildlife in Idaho!

On the second page of the Idaho Individual Tax form 40 you have the opportunity to donate to the “Nongame Wildlife Conservation Fund”.

Check-off this box on your next return or ask your tax preparer to mark the Nongame check-off on your behalf. You can donate any amount you wish, it all helps to support the wildlife you love.

If you are not from Idaho, check with your own state wildlife agency about how you can help. Many states have a similar program.