Alice Gage: I’m Alice Gage, editor of the Australian Museum magazine. I’d like to acknowledge the Gadigal people as the Custodians of the land on which the Australian Museum stands. We pay our respect to Aboriginal Elders and recognise their continuous connection to Country.
This is Explore, a podcast that takes you inside Australia’s first museum. There are 21.9 million objects and specimens in the Museum’s collection, and each contains a clue from the past and an answer for the future.
Join us on expeditions, in exhibitions and in the lab as we explore the world of the Australian Museum.
Kris Helgen: No one knows how many units of life species organisms are on the planet today. It might be something like two million. It might be something like 10 million, maybe even more.
Patrick Smith: And in doing that, the piece of rock came off and he held it in his hand and looked at it and thought, Oh, that looks like a trilobite.
Alice Gage: AMRI is the big building attached to the Australian Museum in Sydney and it houses our collections, our laboratories and about a hundred scientists and researchers. These experts are hard at work investigating Australia’s biodiversity and paving the way for conservation efforts. Using DNA, 3D imaging and other techniques, they identify pests, solve wildlife forensic mysteries and unravel the origins of Australia’s unique fauna. They also discover new species.
In our final episode of this season of Explore, we’re going behind the scenes and into the field to find out how and why new species continue to be added to the annals of life on Earth.
The discovery of new species often begins with scientists venturing into remote environments. What you are hearing right now is the CSIRO research vessel Investigator, motoring across the Indian Ocean in July 2021. The scientists aboard the ship, including five from the Australian Museum, are looking for life on underwater mountains, 5000 metres below the surface.
Tim O’Hara: This is the voyage of discovery. We don't actually know what animals are down there yet. So if you take small sets of samples from the seafloor in order to determine exactly what animals and even microbes are living down there.
Alice Gage: This is Tim O’Hara, from Museums Victoria – the Chief Scientist on the voyage.
Tim O’Hara: On our voyage to the Indian Ocean territories, we're deploying quite a few pieces of equipment, and one of the most important is the deep towed camera. It's it's essential for us to get a picture of exactly what's on the seafloor. We get some sense of it from the multibeam. We can see larger valleys in the hills. But to understand, is it rocky? Is it sandy? What's living there? You know what sort of fish around? It's really important to have some visuals on the ground, not only for science, also for communication. You know, people are really wondering we're going to create new national marine parks in these zones. And what does it look like? What does the deep sea contain? What's the animals are there? So the deep towed camera fulfils a lot of those objectives. It tells us scientifically what's on the seafloor. Operationally, it helps us plan the next deployment and also we can communicate the conservation values of those areas to the Australian public.
Alice Gage: Expeditions like this not only survey completely unknown habitats but they provide specimens that scientists can identify and describe – including some that are new to science. A beam trawl is used to scoop up samples from the ocean floor. Scientists then sort and preserve what they find, in this case, a range of diverse marine life including bizarrely shaped sea cucumbers, huge sea stars, blood-red crustaceans, beautiful jellyfish and lots of deep-sea worms.
This is the heart of the work of our passionate scientists, who, by identifying these creatures, can help protect them.
Scientists aboard the CSIRO RV Investigator:
Oh, wow. Oh yeah. Oh, there's another in there too.
Yes. Wow. Oh, that's so cool. He did, yeah, pretty amazing.
Wow. This is what we wanted it, isn't it?
Alice Gage: The discovery of new species doesn’t just happen in the field – it can also happen in the lab, by using the Australian Museum’s 195-year-old collection of natural specimens.
Kris Helgen: Behind the scenes in these big natural history museums. They have these decades or even centuries long traditions of sending out expeditions to explore the natural world.
Alice Gage: Professor Kris Helgen is the Chief Scientist of the Australian Museum and Director of the Australian Museum Research Institute.
Kris Helgen: Some of the results from those kinds of studies, you know, end up in the galleries and displays of the grand majority of things that are brought back to document life on Earth and understand it end up behind the scenes in museums.
Like most natural history museums do, we have about a hundred scientific staff behind the scenes whose job is to understand, study, interpret and continue to look after these collections that serve as Alice the storehouse of the basic understanding of life on Earth.
Alice Gage: I just wanted to ask you about natural history, museum collections and the role that they play in the discovery of new species. Can you talk to me about that?
Kris Helgen: At the Australian Museum we have the largest collection, not just in Australia, but in the entirety of the southern hemisphere. Twenty two million specimens and artifacts, most of which are biological specimens. So imagine it, what are we talking about? Thinking about pulling out drawers that have carefully kind of curated and stored pinned specimens of beetles. Beetles from everywhere in New South Wales, everywhere in Australia, places in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, where scientists have gone maybe 200 years ago, even. And so over time, these collections build up. And the other aspect of it is not only do we have these collections, but to study them and to make sense of them.
If you really want to get down to how to understand the units of life, how many species are there, how are they distributed? Which ones are rare? Which ones are endangered? Which ones are threatened even with immediate extinction? What do they do for a living? [...]
The answer to those questions comes in solving these puzzles, using the material that's been amassed in natural history and collect so those tens of millions of specimens in our collection and every other are ultimately the storehouse and the solution to making careful comparisons that allow generation on generation scientists to tell apart the different forms of life on our Earth, to carefully document that to name species and to ultimately send that information back from the museum into the wider world, the world at large, the rest of the real world. And that information then, is what is used in everything they might want to understand about nature and life on Earth.
Kris Helgen: No one knows how many life kind of, you know, units of life species organisms are on the planet today. It might be something like two million. It might be something like 10 million, maybe even more. [00:26:03] we have millions more to try to document and our team is doing that tirelessly, both because we just love this kind of work and it is exciting and it adds to the store of knowledge that we have about the planet and its conservation.
Alice Gage: You're also a mammalogist and that's a scientist that specialises in the study of mammals. You've documented over 100 previously unknown mammals from around the world. Firstly, could you just clarify something really basic for us? Are you discovering species that have been previously overlooked or are you discovering species that are newly evolved?
Kris Helgen: That's a great question, because I think when people hear that term new species, their mind is sort of fighting inside about what exactly does that mean? It doesn't mean that these species have evolved brand new and we've found them because they're brand new. What we're doing and every single time when we're working with any group of animals, documenting something, giving something a scientific name. For the first time, we are diagnosing a unit of life that has been on the planet, usually for a million years or so. So there are overlooked species And that's because the world and biodiversity, the richness of life on our planet is absolutely extraordinary.
Alice Gage: So, in 2020 to 2021, the scientists at AMRI discovered 218 new species. [...] They include fish, frogs, bats, worms from the bottom of the ocean, you name it. [...] And so I'd just like to put a couple to you, and perhaps you can tell us a bit more about them and how they were discovered. [...] If we could start with the majestic red bodied pipe fish. [00:20:52] Could you describe it for our listeners…
Kris Helgen: Those listeners that are able I encourage you to type into it, into your computer, into a search engine, read wide bodied type fish. You know, five fish are seahorse relatives, so they kind of look straight up like a sort of pencil. And about that, that size is this gloriously coloured new species. Brand new is named a new fish species for Australia this past year. Alice is stunning. It is. It is as red as red can be.
Where does it live? Lives on the east coast of Australia. One of most unexpectedly about this photo, Alice, is that it? When it was described last year, it was documented that this is a reasonably common fish in Botany Bay. So, you know, within the urban confines of Sydney itself, the largest city here in Australia, we have this gorgeous, colourful, stunning new species of seahorse relative, this gorgeous red pipe fish. So how is it that we get to 20 21 in this case with this seemingly conspicuous beautiful animal going without a scientific name? And it's for a variety of things. One is that this is down just a little deeper than what many divers are exploring when they're out there looking out and swimming and taking pictures of fish and and coral and things along the east coast of Australia. So it's down a little deeper than than many people are diving into camouflage and is really well against some of the red. You know, the red environment down there, there's different plants, there's different sort of corals, and sometimes it's hard to find. But probably the most important thing about this is just this earlier aspect I'm mentioning about, perhaps unexpectedly to many, how little we actually still know about life on Earth, including in the areas around us.
Alice Gage: How long do you think it's been around for?
Kris Helgen: Oh, well, that's really interesting and you know, how do we figure that out [00:24:32] what our teams did at the museum was look at the DNA of this species, figure out what is most close relative amongst the fish was which is another species of green or brown type fish that also lives in Australia. So these two are what we call sister species. They're more closely related to each other than any other organism on Earth. If you study how different their DNA is and sort of map that back. How long ago they shared a common ancestor is something like 12 million years. So this fish has been evolving on its own evolutionary path, on its own trajectory becoming this gorgeous bright red animal or, you know, something like 12 million years. And it's only now in the 21st century that we we've to include in the fact that it's out there.
Alice Gage: The next species that I'd like to, I suggest to you, Chris, will be very close to your heart as you're the one who found it along with your colleagues the gigantic eunan woolly flying squirrel, which is another gorgeous species.
Kris Helgen: It truly is gigantic. It can be well over a meter long from nose to tip of tail. And these are flying squirrel. [00:31:04] This is a species that can open the flaps of skin on its side and glide from a higher vantage down to a lower vantage. Huge species and it lives only in parts of the Himalayas. So the first species of wooly flying squirrel was discovered by Western scientists in 1888 from Pakistan and India. And that's really all we've known ever since. It has been kind of a mystery, a question mark as to what what is this species all about? We've only had a few specimens sitting in museums and very little study going on in the wild. Even an understanding of how far it might be distributed across Himalayan ecosystems has been largely lacking.
What we did last year was published a big paper where we worked with a range of colleagues in various countries, especially with some of our colleagues in China. And we were able. To document specimens that have been largely overlooked in museum collections in India and some of the European museums, and especially in China, and what we found was there were this kind of similar kind of flying squirrel gigantic super woolly soft to the touch. Beautiful, cute animal. It was found in in parts of Tibet and all the way over into Southwest China, so major different sections of the Himalayas. And what we found through studying their anatomy and their DNA was that they were quite different species. There's one that's in Tibet and the one that's in Southwest China, Yunnan from the original species that was found in India and Pakistan.
So this was a case of taking a really poorly known animal, very charismatic, very beautiful, but little studied and just scratching and looking a little bit closer than anyone had at it before. And by doing that and taking an expert eye to it and working with collaborators who could ferret out where specimens might be in museums that have been overlooked documented a much more complete understanding of this very rare animal and found that it exists in three different parts of the Himalayas, where it exists as three very different species.
So when we name these species, what we're also doing is diagnosing evolutionary history and kind of, you know, placing names on the tree of life as we see it, sort of the the family tree of of of all squirrels. Here's two major branches sticking out that have been there all along, and we miss them so far. Now we know that they're given them names and they've entered. They've entered the wider world now that we've documented them and they're entering things like endangered species lists and conservation sort of management plans. So now that we know they're there, we can work hard to make sure that they're looked after and that their long term existence is going to be assured.
Alice Gage: Chris, I've got one more question for you today. What's it like to be a person, a scientist who has discovered new species?
Kris Helgen: For me, there is no greater thrill. And I can imagine no greater thrill than this. And you know, even though, you know, this is my passion and it's what I'm good at and it's something I've done again and again. But no matter how many we might find, every single time, it is a genuine eureka moment. It is a incredible reward to sort of come to the understanding that we really have something in this case that is so distinctive that, you know, science has never given it a scientific name. And to be able to have the privilege of working to to do that and to introduce it to the scientific community is extraordinary.
Kris Helgen: Now some of these gorgeous species that I've had the pleasure of naming as new to science, is not new to everybody, and that's so important for us to think about who is. But you know what our remote areas to western science or to us sitting in the museum are, you know, the genuine backyards of people from other places. And so there might be species that have been known in their environments for a very long time. So there's an element of humility that also has to, you know, be part of the equation, which is is as thrilling as as these discoveries can be. These are, as you say, as we pointed out, species that have been on our planet for a very long time. And it's sort of, in some ways, Western science, as we're just now starting to learn, you know, as a scientific community who they are, what they do and how we can look after them.
Alice Gage: That's so true. In a previous episode, we spoke to Sarah Judge, who's in the First Nations team at the Australian Museum about Barra, the eel and the significance of the eel to First Nations people. And I suppose that's a good example of of what you're saying. A creature that has been known to different nations along the east coast of Australia…
Kris Helgen: For a very long time. You know, that's a perfect example, Alison. In a way, everything that lives on, you know, the land surface of the continent of Australia, almost everything on this continent was entirely new to scientists when Europeans first started to explore and learn about this continent. Simultaneously, almost every one of those species would have been so well known to, you know, the people who were living on this land and living with those animals and those plants and those those those landscapes for tens of thousands of years. So again, the aspect of humility and understanding that a discovery is not always a world first. In this case, what we're talking about is kind of bringing it into the the fabric and the system of of western science. But these things have been there all along.
Alice Gage: With each species that becomes known to science, is given a name and has its DNA and characteristics recorded, our understanding of the Tree of Life expands. The discovery of new species that are fossilised can help paint this picture.
Patrick Smith: So the picture of ancient life offers us many glimpses into the past, so it offers us a window into the past that previously without the fossils, we wouldn't be able to know. For example, the evolution of life how life has changed over time and how life has changed to things like climate over time as climate has changed.
Alice Gage: This is Dr Patrick Smith – a paleontologist at the Australian Museum. You might remember him from episode one.
Like everything, climate change is having an effect on the discovery of new species – but in ways scientists couldn’t have predicted.
Patrick Smith: Climate change has affected, the discovery of new species in multiple ways in paleontology. It's done things like, for example, in Siberia, it's melted permafrost, which has previously been in an impenetrable. And so it's made accessible. Things like mammoths, for example, previously wouldn't have been able to be accessed by by things like drills or your other drilling equipment.
So climate change has helped in palaeontology in Australia by allowing droughts to occur and as those droughts occur. We get things like, for example, grass dying off or locust plagues, and these actually reduce the height of grass and grass is a real pain when trying to find fossils because if grass is coming up to your armpits, you can't see fossils. I've been wandering around fields in Queensland and not been able to find anything because the grass is so high. But when I come back and I'm wandering around the same fields and the grass is down to less than my shoe height, then I can see fossils everywhere and I'm struggling to carry fossils back to the car. There's just that many. Of course, I don't advocate for climate change as necessarily being a great thing, but it's at least helped paleontology in terms of finding fossils in Australia.
Alice Gage: In late 2020, Patrick discovered an extremely rare species of trilobite. So … wait what’s a trilobite?
Patrick Smith: A trilobite is an extinct group of what we call arthropods. So arthropods are basically the group that includes the spiders, the scorpions, the horseshoe crabs, but also insects, crustaceans, mites, anything that you might think of as a creepy crawly a little bit. These trilobites they look a little bit like your roly-poly that you might find in your garden or was sometimes called wood loss or Slaters. Some people think they look a little bit like cockroaches. I don't think they look as much like cockroaches as some people say. [00:33:44] they're not the earliest fossils that we find, but they're some of the earliest fossils that we find. So they're very primitive organisms.
This particular trilobite fossil had actually been in the Australian Museum Collection since 1997 – but no-one until this point realised just how significant it was. It was found in northern Tasmania in rather interesting circumstances by Australian Museum research associate Malte Ebach.
Patrick Smith: He was traveling around Tasmania with a friend in 1997, he was going to go to a wildlife preserve. And as he did so so long the gun plains, which is sort of in the north western part of Tasmania. And as he did so, he just sort of stopped over on the road to go to the toilet. He really needed to go and he couldn't wait. So he raced into the bush and as he raced into the bush, he just grabbed onto the nearest rocky could to sort of stabilise himself. And in doing that, the piece of rock came off and he held it in his hand and looked at it and thought, Oh, that looks like a trilobite.
Malte brought the fossil, along with a few others, back to the Australian Museum, but because of the lack of extra material they were packed away without being examined.
It was only when Malte mentioned them to me that I sort of pulled them out again and realise that he'd collected a new species.
It was a calymennid species of trilobite, from the Late Ordovician Period, about 440 million years ago. It’s a special discovery because they’ve previously only been found in Europe and North America, which may suggest Australia was somehow connected to these other continents by oceanic currents.
We wanted to give this species a unique name. And so Molton, I set down scratch our heads and we went, Well, how can we name it that would be unique. Both of us ended up saying, Well, we're both fans of Doctor Who. How about we name it after Doctor Who? And so hence we gave it the species name Baker after Tom Baker.
Alice Gage: What does the discovery of the trilobite tell us about biodiversity on the planet?
Patrick Smith: Well, what it tells us is that biodiversity has both increased over time, but also that Australia has been underrepresented, particularly from that period in time in the ordovician period. It's likely that Australia has been underreported, probably because a lot of the time, Australia just hasn't had, the number of paleontologists that other nations have had, like, for example, the US or or the UK. And so because of that, it means that the diversity that's often given for Australia is relatively low compared to the rest of the globe. But in fact, what this trilobite shows is that it probably is much higher than people expect. It's just underreported.
Alice Gage: Patrick, what does it feel like to have discovered a whole new species?
Patrick Smith: It's a great honour to have discovered new species. One of the privileges, I suppose, is that you get to name those species, and it's something that I've as I've grown older myself and named more and more species, I take with more and more reverence because you can see the importance in it, as some of those species become very useful in things like, for example, telling the ages of a rock being useful for identifying particular environments because the names become synonymous with those indicators. And so it really is a privilege. I see it as a scientist, to be able to name new species.
Alice Gage: The work of the Australian Museum Research Institute could not be done without the support of donations via the Australian Museum Foundation. Please consider contributing to the Museum’s world-leading science by going to australian.museum/foundation. All donations over $2 are tax-deductible.
This is the last episode of the first season of Explore – we really hope you enjoyed it. We’d love to hear from you – give us a shout on the Australian Museum socials. We’ll see you for season two later in the year.
I’m Alice Gage, editor of Explore magazine. This episode was produced by myself and Cassandra Steeth, edited by Bernadette Phuong Nam Nguyen and mixed by Weronika Razna. Our music was written and performed by Freya Berkout. Thanks for listening.
No one knows how many animal species are on the planet today. It might be something like two million, it might be something like 10 million, maybe even more. The scientists of the Australian Museum Research Institute are hard at work investigating Earth’s biodiversity – which sometimes means discovering animals not previously known to science. These discoveries teach us what has come before us, and what we need to protect for the generations that will come after us.
In the final episode of Explore season one, we head out into the field – from the deepest ocean trenches to the peaks of the Himalayas – to discover how the Australian Museum’s Chief Scientist Professor Kris Helgen and palaeontologist Dr Patrick Smith identify new species, and what it means to add new branches to the Tree of Life.
About the guests
Professor Kristofer Helgen
Professor Kristofer Helgen is Chief Scientist and Director of the Australian Museum Research Institute. He is responsible for a team of more than 100 staff, including research scientists, collection scientists, collection officers and more than 130 associates, fellows and students, who research and explore the natural world. Kris was most recently Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Adelaide.
He has focused his research primarily on fieldwork with living animals and research in museum collections to document the richness of life, understand global change, and contribute to important problems in biomedicine.
Originally from Minnesota, Kris gained his undergraduate degree in Biology at Harvard University and his Ph.D. in Zoology as a Fulbright Fellow at the University of Adelaide. From 2008-2017 he served as Curator-in-Charge of Mammals at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. Kris has conducted research in more than 50 countries documenting some 100 previously overlooked species of living mammals.
Dr Patrick Smith
Dr Patrick Smith is a technical officer in the Palaeontology Collection at the Australian Museum Research Institute. He obtained a PhD at Macquarie University looking at Middle Cambrian (500–510 million year old) marine invertebrates from Ross River Gorge near Alice Springs in central Australia.
He also was a previous curator at the Richmond Marine Fossil Museum (Kronosaurus Korner) in far northwest Queensland and a technical officer in the geology department at the University of New South Wales. Currently he is working to database the Australian Museum’s entire Palaeontology Collection. This includes all the material onsite, as well as the material at the museum offsite storage facility.
Dr Tim O'Hara
Dr Tim O'Hara is the Senior Curator, Marine Zoology, at Museums Victoria. He uses museum collections to answer large-scale questions about the distribution of seafloor animals around the globe.
This research includes aspects of biogeography, macroecology, phylogeny, and phylogeography. Tim's taxonomic speciality is the Ophiurodea (brittle-stars), a class of echinoderms that are a dominant component of the seafloor fauna.
Alice Gage is the producer, writer and host of the Australian Museum’s Explore podcast, and editor of Explore, its biannual magazine.
Alice is an editor, project manager and content creator with 15 years' experience in print and digital storytelling. She is a passionate communicator of science, intersections of culture, climate change, the arts and parenting, working across a broad range of formats. She founded and published cult art journal Ampersand Magazine from 2009-2013.
Alice lives on Bidjigal Country with her husband and their two little redheads. She holds an MA in Communications from Melbourne University and a BA in English from Sydney University.