Newness, Past and Present

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I noticed two items this week regarding species previously unknown to us. They’ve both been labelled ‘new’, although they are anything but new.

The first is a long-extinct sauropod, the largest yet discovered, which has been given the truly magnificent name Dreadnoughtus schrani, ‘that which fears nothing’. As a quadruped the size of a Boeing 737, I imagine the only thing a Dreadnoughtus might have had to fear was a lack of plant material to forage.

Or, in the case of the Dreadnoughtus individual found in Argentina, quicksand. The creature was preserved when it and other dinosaurs perished in the Patagonian hills an estimated 77 million years ago.

Dreadnoughtus scharni Source: E. Eng, National Geographic, M.C. Lamanna, Carnegie Museum of Natural History

Dreadnoughtus scharni
Source: E. Eng, National Geographic, M.C. Lamanna, Carnegie Museum of Natural History

The other find involves a sea animal that is, presumably, still extant in the oceans off Tasmania. No one is really sure.

Dendrogramma enigmatica and Dendrogramma discoides Source: Kristensen, Olesen/PLOS ONE

Dendrogramma enigmatica and Dendrogramma discoides
Source: Kristensen, Olesen/PLOS ONE

Dendrogramma eingmatica (another wonderful name) is a tiny mushroom shaped being with a long stalk and a mouth. After much examination, what is really new about Dendrogramma is that the two species don’t fit into any existing phylogenetic classification.

They seem to comprise their own little branch on the Tree of Life.

Dendrogramma Source: Kristensen, Olesen/PLOS ONE

Dendrogramma
Source: Kristensen, Olesen/PLOS ONE

I was never comfortable with the fact that when we perceive a natural entity that we haven’t seen before, whether it’s a species, a geographical feature or a planet, we say we’ve ‘discovered something new’.

It implies that only what we humans have seen and identified actually counts as existing.

The Dendrogramma specimens under discussion were harvested in 1986, and preserved in such a way that DNA analysis can’t be applied. Until new specimens are found, and maybe even after, their provenance will remain a mystery.

New to us, not really new at all.

 

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