Smile for the new species

No one knows how to stem the tide of oil sweeping towards the southern United States, so there's not much to write about that. I could talk about the post-election brain drain that has already started: a senior Cambridge neuroscientist has moved his entire research team to Canada. Then there's news that climate change is killing lizards at a rate that suggests more than a fifth of plant and animal species will be extinct before the end of the century.

Sometimes, even scientists find it hard to be positive. Thankfully, in the past fortnight, an expedition to Papua New Guinea has found a frog with a hooked nose and a cute dwarf kangaroo. So let's focus on that.

The male Pinocchio frog has a long, droopy proboscis that sticks up only when it calls out - like a party blower. The dwarf wallaby is the smallest species of kangaroo. The expedition also found new species of bat, pigeon and mouse. Some good news at last.

With all the bad news about the loss of biodiversity, it might seem surprising that we are still finding species. Yet, in 2007, 18,516 new species turned up. In 2006, the count was 16,969. And in late May, it was announced that scientists had discovered 18,225 species in 2008.

Scientists have been ticking off new species for 250 years, and the ticks are coming faster than ever. The new discoveries aren't all tiny invertebrates, either. Last year, an earlier expedition to Papua New Guinea found cat-sized rats and a frog with fangs. In 2008, someone looked under a rock in Barbados and found a snake that could curl up on a 10p piece. Then there's the crazy-looking psychedelic frogfish that prefers to walk on its fins rather than swim around the coral reefs of Indonesia.

We've increased the number of known mammal species by 10 per cent since 1993. A quarter of all known amphibian species has been discovered in the past ten years (we'll gloss over how worldwide amphibian numbers are in free fall). We are in a golden age of species discovery.

Why is this? Google Earth has helped: it enables scientists to do easy reconnaissance of habitats. There's increased travel to remote parts: the kha-nyou, a long-whiskered rodent, and a new striped Sumatran rabbit were both discovered in far-flung hunters' markets.

Genetic technology has done its bit, too. By analysing the genomes of their finds, researchers have managed to take one species of dusky salamander and turn it into four. Two species of Madagascan lemur have recently been split into 13.

For all these technological leaps, most new species are still found using old-fashioned legwork - scientists in the field, exploring new regions of the planet. It's almost enough to make you feel better about everything.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 31 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The war on the veil