You are on a mission to catch and identify wild bees that pollinate rare desert plants. You must sneak up and net your quarry without breaking delicate wings and flowers. Then you transfer the netted bees to cyanide-laced "kill jars" that swiftly end the struggle and keep them in good condition. Then you pack the dead bees in your luggage and fly home to your lab in Utah.
At least that's what you do if you're on David Tanner's research team. For several years, Tanner, a Utah State University post-doctoral student, and two other graduate students have been studying complex bee-plant relationships and assisting habitat restoration in an oasis called the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge near Pahrump, Nev.
They generated some excitement in April by announcing that they had discovered two new species—tiny but spectacular bees in the Perdita genus, each a tenth of an inch long with iridescent blue-green thoraxes and orange-yellow-striped abdomens.
The discoveries, netted by master's degree candidate Catherine Clark and verified by a federal bee expert in April, "underscore how little we know about the natural world," Tanner says.
The resulting flurry of headlines around the West implied that such discoveries were unusual, but they're not. In recent years, researchers have discovered a new species of Indian paintbrush plant in Washington, a new bacteria with"special light-harvesting antennae" in Yellowstone National Park's thermal pools, a new "ice beetle" in California's Trinity Alps, new mosses in Yosemite National Park, a "giant" fairy shrimp three inches long that eats smaller shrimp in seasonal desert pools in Idaho, a new finch and a new primrose in Idaho's mountains, a new fern and a new phlox on wealthy conservationist Ted Turner's Vermejo Park Ranch in New Mexico, "the first known gilled underwater mushrooms in the world" in Oregon's Rogue River, a new alpine fungus in Montana's Beartooth Mountains, new species of moths in Colorado and Arizona mountain ranges, and a new fungus in Wyoming cow pies—and those are just the stories that have appeared in mainstream news.
Such discoveries are made every day around the world: 20,000 new species are identified by taxonomists each year, according to Popular Science. The American West is a notable hotspot for exploring that biodiversity. Though not on a par with Indonesia and the Amazon, the region contains some of our nation's most diverse ecosystems in national parks, wildlife refuges and other public land as well as many conservation-oriented ranches.
Most of the discoveries get no publicity beyond scientific circles. Yet every one is important, not only intrinsically but also in practical terms. Each species has evolved to be somewhat different, with potentially new ways of living and coping with stresses. Medicines, better fuels and other breakthroughs have been developed from studying new species. Research on native bees, for instance, has become particularly important as domestic honeybees—pollinators of most crops—have been slammed by hordes of mites, colony collapse and other troubles. Recently, some native bees have been harnessed for crop pollination, and researchers are working on expanding such uses of the natives.
James Pitts, a Utah State assistant biology professor who oversees Tanner's and Clark's work, has himself discovered hundreds of species of velvet ants, a type of wasp. He's studying their genetics to learn how climate change thousands of years ago affected species diversity. That could help us predict how the current climate trend will shake out and help determine carbon policies, he says.
At the same time, we're also facing an extinction crisis, as thousands of species wink out every year, on a pace that's thought to be increasing. The actual number remains a guess, as is our crystal-ball assessment of the total number of species on the planet right now. According to two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson, "Estimates run from an improbably low 5 million [total species] to as high as a 100 million [including all the] small organisms, like bacteria and nematode ground worms."
Meanwhile, each newly discovered species advances our overall understanding of the whole world and what's at risk. The researchers often emphasize a basic message: We need to protect our wild and semi-wild areas, because we still don't know what's out there. Conservation is our insurance policy against our ignorance.
Ray Ring is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the magazine's senior editor in Bozeman.