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The Pakaraima slender opossum, a new species named after the 500-metre high plateau in western Guyana that gives rise to Mount Ayanganna and other flat-topped mountains. (Francis X. Faigal)
The Pakaraima slender opossum, a new species named after the 500-metre high plateau in western Guyana that gives rise to Mount Ayanganna and other flat-topped mountains. (Francis X. Faigal)

How I discovered a new species of opossum, and why it matters Add to ...

I had barely recovered from the adrenalin rush of touching down on a tiny airstrip hacked out of the Guyanese rain forest when my heart sank. I had expected to be greeted by a group of Amerindian porters hired to carry a ton of food and field equipment to the summit of Mount Ayanganna, clearly visible 40 kilometres away.

Instead, the porters – known locally as drudgers – were about to head home. They had been double-booked, and were just getting back from an excursion with another group of biologists.

For me, turning back was out of the question. As a curator of mammalogy at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, I had come to 2,000-metre-high Mount Ayanganna to conduct the first known survey of mammals in the area.

Illegal gold mining was threatening many local species downstream on the Potaro River, but I was headed upriver to find out what species of mammals lived on this pristine and remote flat-topped mountain of western Guyana, the smallish South American nation north of Brazil and east of Venezuela.

I was out to document the poorly studied, small-sized mammals such as bats, rats and opossums.

If I was really lucky, I might discover a species or two that had so far managed to escape human detection.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, more plant and animal species are being discovered than are going extinct. And not only tiny, innocuous organisms. More than 9,000 new species of insects were documented in 2009 (the most recent data), but there were also, says the International Institute of Species Exploration at Arizona State University, 41 mammal species described as new that year, such as several tube-nosed bats and an arboreal rice rat. (While 196 mammals are listed as critically endangered, the international Red List of Threatened Species reported no mammals going extinct in 2009.)

While I can’t deny the personal pride involved, the discovery of previously unknown species has much wider implications than bringing recognition to an otherwise obscure academic researcher.

A new species could contribute to the next medical cure to help heart-attack patients, help develop a new natural product to rival rubber, or spur research into a promising new crop.

A deeper knowledge of the world’s biodiversity also bolsters understanding of Earth’s intricate ecosystem and how its health provides a crucial hedge against global warming and climate change.

Bats, for example, play an important role in the regeneration of tropical forest by acting as seed dispersers and flower pollinators.

The continuing discovery of new species is due in large part to revolutionary technologies in molecular biology that have allowed researchers to peek inside the cells of organisms and distinguish between plants and animals that superficially appear similar: For example, the Tasmanian tiger looks somewhat like the Asian big cat, but it’s actually an Australian marsupial.

DNA analysis takes this example to a finer level of study: Thanks to a 2001 study at the Laboratory of Genomic Diversity of the National Cancer Institute in Maryland, what we once called the African elephant is now split into two different species, the savannah elephant and the forest elephant.

But the larger, better-known mammals represent only a quarter of the species that populate tropical forests. Much less is known about the huge variety of smaller mammals, weighing less than a kilogram.

Even with the help of modern technology in the lab, however, new discoveries still require a scientist to venture out from the comfort of the office to some of the most remote and inhospitable parts of Earth.

Charles Darwin spent nearly five years from 1831 to 1836 on a voyage of discovery exploring the natural wonders of the world while circumnavigating the globe. His younger contemporary, Alfred Russel Wallace, was nearly as celebrated an explorer and biologist. Wallace traipsed through the Amazon for four years and then spent eight more traversing the Indo-Malaysian archipelago.

Between them, the two identified hundreds of hitherto unknown organisms, ranging from barnacles to butterflies. This inquisitive curiosity led them to the Holy Grail of life – the theory of evolution by natural selection.

The Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity in Montreal estimates that there are 5,000 to 7,000 researchers worldwide involved in the scientific business of classifying species. At the Royal Ontario Museum, 17 curators conduct biological field expeditions searching for anything from mushrooms in Thailand to fish in Ecuador.

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