Unearthed and Untamed: 10 New Animals Scientists Discovered in 2021

Photo Courtesy: F. Glaw, et al./CC BY 4.0/Wikimedia Commons

Scientists estimate that there are around 8.7 million species in the world, and only a fraction of them have been discovered so far. Each year, researchers uncover more of these previously unknown animals that are designated as their own species — some after years of research and others after their initial discovery. In 2021, a variety of interesting new critters were discovered. Check out 10 of the most fascinating that have been honored with their own place on the list of the world’s species this year. 

Original feature image by Frank Glaw, et al., CC BY 4.0

A Bright Orange Bat

Discovered on an expedition in the Nimba Mountains of West Africa by a group of scientists from Bat Conservation International, Cameroon’s University of Maroua and the American Museum of Natural History, this newly discovered bat makes its home in “sky islands” throughout a mountain range. Scientifically known as Myotis nimbaensis, the Bright Orange Bat appears so far to exist in caves and mining tunnels of the Nimba Mountains, alongside other rare bat species such as the Lamotte’s roundleaf bat (Hipposideros lamottei). Luckily for these copper-colored critters, much of their habitat is already part of a nature preserve. 

The Yellow King Penguin

Close view of the head of a king penguin, Aptenodytes patagonicus, in a breeding and recovery station. Photo Courtesy: Hernan Caputo/iStock

While technically first spotted in 2019, the world didn’t get a look at the newly discovered Yellow King Penguin until 2021. The bird was recorded by wildlife photographer Yves Adams while on an expedition on a small island north of Antarctica called South Georgia. Rather than the typical black and white coloring of traditional King Penguins, this rare bird sports a yellow and white tuxedo look. Adams believes that its unique coloring may be due to a mutation called leucism, which causes a lack of the pigment needed to produce typical coloring. Scientists will need to perform genetic testing on the bird to determine what ultimately caused its bright yellow hue.

Rice’s Whale

A Bryde’s whale feeding off the coast of Thailand. Photo Courtesy: JoyfulThailand/iStock

The creation of a unique classification for Rice’s whale has been a long time in the making. The whale was first documented by biologist Dale Rice back in the 1960s. It wasn’t until 2014, however, that genetic testing confirmed that it was indeed genetically distinct from the other Bryde’s whales, which scientists believed it was a variation of. When a Rice’s whale washed ashore on a Florida beach in 2019, scientists had the chance to perform an autopsy on it and begin gathering data. In 2021, scientists had finally compiled enough evidence to formally recognize the Rice’s whale as a new species. Unfortunately, it’s believed that only 100 or so Rice’s whales exist in the wild, meaning it’s also critically endangered.

A Gender Neutral Ant Named by a Rockstar

This tiny trap-jaw ant was first discovered in Northwest Ecuador by Philipp Hoenle of the Technical University of Darmstadt, Germany. After Yale entomologist Douglas Booher confirmed that the ant was indeed a new species, he was joined by R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe in selecting its name. 


Stripe and Booher decided to name the ant in honor of their mutual friend, artist and LGBTQ activist Jeremy Ayers. Its scientific name, Strumigenys ayersthey, is also a celebration of gender diversity. Usually, when a species is named after a person, the name will end in the suffix “ae” if it’s named after a woman or “i” if named after a man Because Ayers was a champion of gender diversity, the pair decided instead to end the ant’s Latin name with the inclusive suffix “they” instead. 

The Rocky Mountain Bumblebee

Photo Courtesy: KorolevPavel/iStock

Meet the Bombus incognitus, a new species of bumblebee discovered by Matthew Webster’s research group at Sweden’s Uppsala University. The group of researchers had been collecting hundreds of samples of mountain-dwelling bees with plans to later sequence their genomes. Ironically, it wasn’t until they began sequencing the data that they realized the existence of the Bombus incognitus — a whole new species. While it’s virtually impossible to tell the difference between the new species of bumblebee from the species Bombus sylvicola just by looking at them, the two turn out to have some key differences at the genetic level. 

The Feiruz Wood Lizard

The Feiruz Wood Lizard, or Enyalioides feiruzae, was formally recognized as its own species in 2021 after years of field studies and research. The dragon-like lizards live in South America and Panama, particularly in the basin of the Huallaga River in the Peruvian Andes. The species appears in a wide range of colors, from turquoise and green to grey and brown. They were named after Feiruz, the pet iguana of Catherine Thomson, who sponsored the research through the nonprofit BIOPAT biodiversity initiative.


A Latte-Colored Snake

This new species of snake has formally been named Stegonotus aplini in honor of herpetologist Dr. Ken Aplin (1958–2019). The snake sports a latte-colored pattern with coffee-brown scales that fade to milky white. It’s native to southern Papua New Guinea, where locals tend to avoid it due to its resemblance to a distantly related venomous snake. Regardless, it appears to be relatively harmless to and disinterested in humans. 


A Spider Named for Greta Thunberg

Huntsman spider. Photo Courtesy: ePhotocorp/iStock

After discovering a new genus of huntsman spider in Madagascar, arachnologist Peter Jager chose to dub it the Thunberga greta after Swedish environmentalist and climate activist Greta Thunberg. “Her commitment to the fight against climate change and for a better future on our planet is impressive,” Jager explained. The Thunberga greta is actually the 400th species of spider that Jager has discovered, including another favorite, the Heteropoda davidbowie. Although the Thunberga greta was technically discovered in 2020, four newly discovered species will soon be joining the Thunberga genus.

The Nano-Chameleon

A German-Madagascan expedition team discovered this smallest known reptile on Earth in Madagascar. The team came across both a male and female of the species — the only two individuals discovered so far. Known scientifically as the Brookesia nana and more commonly as the nano-chameleon, the male lizard’s body is just 13.5 millimeters long, making it about the size of a sunflower seed. The female is a bit bigger at around 29 millimeters. While they are members of the chameleon family, these two, which were first described in 2021, don’t appear to be able to change colors as they hunt for food along the forest floor. 


A Massive Tropical Centipede

Giant red centipede. Photo Courtesy: ApisitWilaijit/iStock

While even small house centipedes tend to be alarming enough, a newly discovered species takes things to a whole new level. The Scolopendra alcyona is huge, measuring 20 centimeters long and 2 centimeters wide. Discovered by a team of Japanese biologists, it lives in the forests of the Ryukyu Archipelago, a Japanese island chain that stretches to Taiwan, and in Taiwan itself. This find was an important one, as it’s the first new centipede to be discovered by Japanese explorers in 143 years. It can also survive on land and water, making it just the third amphibious centipede species known to science.