Reading the word “discoveries” and “exploration”, it is difficult to not conceive images of impressive galleys out at sea and intrepid middle-aged men in beige and khaki. This is part of a portrait of history we consume in primary school. This stereotype is problematic for many reasons, one of which is how ignorant we become to the research teams and scientists who uncover new places, cultures and species every day. It has become difficult to imagine what else is left to find on a planet made smaller and smaller thanks to the ease of long-distance travel and the growth of the human population.
Turns out, there’s a lot. The WWF publication ‘Hidden Himalayas: Asia’s Wonderland’ – released this Monday – chronicles the discovery of 200 hitherto unrecorded species in the Himalayas, from 2009 to the present day. This is despite the fact that three-quarters of the original habitat has been manipulated by man, causing massive vegetation and animal life loss. New species recorded include Channa andrao, the dwarf snakehead fish; a primitive fish which breathes air despite the gills they possess.
There is a multitude of life we terrestrial settlers are just not aware of: take for instance a case from Amami-Ōshima, Japan. For 20 years, divers had been spotting 6.5 foot-wide circular structures, intricate and appearing seemingly out of nowhere, with no cause or perpetrator. However, Nature’s Scientific Reports published a journal in 2013 – and videos were later filmed, narrated of course by David Attenborough – revealing that the creator of these underwater geometric sculptures were 5 inch-long male pufferfishes (of Torquigener) attempting to attract a female with their artistry. These dedicated artists take up to twenty days to manipulate the sand into surreal underwater crop-circles, even decorating the outer peaks with fragments of coral and shell.
Lest we forget, as published in the journal Elife, last month’s revelations of a new human ancestor, Homo naledi, found deep in a cave system in South Africa, named the “Star chamber”. Professor Lee Berger told BBC News: “By the end of that remarkable 21-day experience, we had discovered the largest assemblage of fossil human relatives ever discovered in the history of the continent of Africa. That was an extraordinary experience.” Through such excavations, we are enabled to learn ever more about our shared planetary history and our own selves.
Modern technology is now allowing us to explore the deep and record our findings like never before. Better late than never, as our oceans and underground cave systems are perhaps more unknown to us than some aspects of the observed universe! In spite of the recent (and awe-inspiring) Martian water discoveries, before we go up to space in search of life and places beyond our stratosphere, perhaps we should instead look down and around at the plethora of species yet to be discovered. With global extinctions ever increasing and the landscape shifting and altering, it’s tragic to think we have lost places, artefacts and species of which we never knew and could learn from.
To help conserve this little bit of the world, see the LUU Conservation Volunteers.