Caribbean Curiosities: Hiding in Plain Sight

People have spent more than 200 years systematically describing and naming the plants and animals around us. One could be forgiven for thinking that process is winding down. The truth is almost the opposite: we’re still finding about 10,000 new species of animals every year.

To be fair, many of these new species are insects. We’ve described about a million insect species, but there may be six to ten million more to go. But we’re also discovering bigger animals: lizards, frogs, birds and even whales.

Almost certainly, there are unknown species right here on St. Martin. We’ve already become the home of three “new” lizard species in the 21st century. None of them were unknown exactly, but none of them were considered distinct species until recently. The Bearded Anole, for example, was considered a subspecies of Watts’ Anole until DNA analysis determined that they had more differences than we thought.

An undescribed species of soapberry bug.

In some cases, two species look so similar it is almost impossible to tell them apart. These are called cryptic species. Genetic analysis can be used to distinguish two species hiding in one form. In other cases, two identical animals may have different parasites—parasites that can tell them apart even when we cannot.

Many of the new species we will find on St. Martin will be small, plain animals: beetles that live under rocks, tiny moths and little spiders. The process of identifying and describing them will take a long time. Much of the work will be done under the microscope and in DNA sequencers.

There are some colorful and engaging bugs that we are still uncertain about. The soapberry bug of St. Martin remains undescribed, although specimens have been delivered to a group of scientists for study. Our stick insect may be a new species as well.

Does it matter if we identify all the tiny creatures that live on St. Martin? In some ways, it could be more an issue of philosophy than practicality. Who would we be if we lost the desire to learn more about the world around us? On the other hand, perhaps this seemingly obscure knowledge does have a future use. Could we someday bring life to a distant planet without understanding it first here on earth?

Could our stick insects be a new species?

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