‘Hell heron’ and ‘Jurassic mouse’ among more than 550 new species catalogued by Natural History Museum

From a “crocodile-faced hell heron” which stalked the Isle of Wight some 125m years ago to a Singaporean cricket hitherto identified only by its song, more than 500 new species were documented by Natural History Museum scientists in 2021.

Despite restrictions imposed on field work by Covid-19 travel restrictions, experts at the London museum have identified and catalogued some 552 creatures previously unknown to science in the last 12 months, ranging from a number of British dinosaurs to nearly 300 species of tiny shrimp vital to the planet’s eco-system.

The catalogued finds have been scattered across the globe, from an Indian snake to a prehistoric mouse-like Jurassic rodent which once scurried beneath the feet of dinosaurs in Scotland some 166 million years ago.

Researchers said the year had been particularly rich in discoveries of dinosaurs which had once roamed what is now the United Kingdom, with four entirely new species catalogued in locations including the Isle of Wight and South Wales. They include two novel types of a giant carnivorous “spinosaur” found on the Isle of Wight, one of which was a nine metre-long predator with a bumpy skull nicknamed the “horned crocodile-faced hell heron”.

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Dr Susannah Maidment, a senior researcher in paleobiology at the museum, said: “It’s been a fantastic year for the description of new dinosaurs, especially from the UK. Although we’ve known about the UK’s dinosaur heritage for over 150 years, the application of new techniques and new data from around the world is helping us to uncover a hidden diversity of British dinosaurs.”

The new species include some 90 new beetles, 52 species of wasps, 13 moths, seven crabs, six flies and five new types of plant found in Africa. Among them was a breed of cricket from Singapore hitherto known only by its trademark chirrup but now linked to a species previously documented in the 1980s.

The identifications also include 291 types of “copepods”, tiny shrimp-like creatures generally measuring no more than a millimetre or so in length which together form one of the largest carbon sinks in the oceans and form a vital part of the food cycle for fish.

Scientists are only just beginning to understand the diversity and importance of the creatures, which inhabit nearly every body of water from mountain lakes to ocean trenches. Professor Geoff Boxshall, a recently retired researcher at the museum, and a colleague in South Korea spent months during lockdown cataloguing copepods previously collected by two French scientists.

Researchers argue that the threats posed by global warming make the cataloguing of the planet’s biodiversity, both current and extinct, more important and pressing than ever.

Among the “species” added to the body of knowledge gathered by the museum was the Winchcombe meteorite, named after the Gloucestershire town where 600 grams of freshly fallen meteorite was gathered in February – the first such event in the UK for three decades.

Having originated from an asteroid that had remained largely unchanged for 4.6bn years, the meteorite – one of only 603 of its kind – is treated by science as its unique type specimen, analogous with a new species.

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