Linnaeus holding what became his personal emblem, the twinflower Linnaea borealis.

Happy Birthday, Carl Linnaeus! For the uninitiated, you can blame Linnaeus for the sometimes-confusing Latin names we use to refer to animal and plant species. The "father of modern taxonomy" would celebrate his 308th birthday this weekend, on May 23. To celebrate, the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry's International Institute for Species Exploration (IISE) named the top ten species to be formally described in the scientific literature last year.

You might think that would be an easy task – how many new species could possibly be left to discover? Since modern taxonomy – the science of describing and classifying biological organisms – began in the eighteen century, researchers have discovered some 18,000 new species every year. That leaves quite a lot of room for picking out ten of the most interesting. 

"The nearly 2 million species named to date represent a small fraction of an estimated 12 million," said Dr. Quentin Wheeler, founding director of the IISE in a statement. "Among the remaining 10 million are irreplaceable clues to our own origins, a detailed blueprint of how the biosphere self-organized, and precious clues to better, more efficient, and more sustainable ways to meet human needs while conserving wild living things. It is time to mount a mission to planet Earth to distinguish, describe, name and classify its life-forms before it is too late."

The international team of taxonomists started the annual tradition of highlighting ten new species in 2008 to call attention to the fact that biodiversity continues to decline even as new species remain unknown to science. "The Top 10 is a reminder of the wonders awaiting us," Wheeler adds.

The chicken dino from hell

We don't need Jurassic World to imagine what fearsome beasts the avian dinosaurs must have been – we have these North American terrors (Anzu wyliei) instead. Because some of the fossils were around the size of a chicken, they were dubbed "chickens from hell", but some others were more than 10 feet long and five feet tall. Chickens from hell indeed.

The Dracula plant 

Photos: from the paper

This plant (Balanophora coralliformis) was designated as critically endangered almost as soon as it was discovered. It's known from fewer than fifty individuals and has only ever been found between 1,465 and 1,735 meters in elevation on a single slope of a single mountain in the Philippines. The aboveground portion of the plant is made of tubers, despite its coral-like appearance, and it can't photosynthesise. Instead, it parasitises the roots of other plants and drains them of their nutrients so it can survive.

THE Gymnast spider

Somewhere in the deserts of Morocco, a spider flails its front legs about in an effort to scare its potential predator away. But the predator remains undeterred. There's nowhere to hide on the sand dunes, so rather than running away from its fate, the spider actually charges towards danger. Then, as if showing off, it switches from galloping to cartwheeling, turning end over end over end over end over end over end over end over end. The predator is uphill? No problem – this arachnid can cartwheel uphill (or downhill, or on flat surfaces)! Before this species (Cebrennus rechenbergieven got its Linnaean classification, it inspired a type of robot that can move around in an eight-legged cartwheel too! 

The mushroom-jellyfish hybrids that defy classificatioN

They look like mushrooms, with a mouth at one end of the stalk and a flattened cap at the other, but they're probably related either to cnidarians (jellyfish, corals and sea anemones) or to ctenophores like comb jellies. But the truth is that the new critters (Dendrogramma enigmatica and Dendrogramma discoids), discovered 1,000 meters under the sea off Point Hicks, Victoria in Australia, aren't quite similar enough to either to warrant being included in those categories. In fact, these multicellular animals could be the only known members of an entirely new phylum ... but until enough specimens can be collected for DNA analysis, they'll remain in taxonomic limbo. 

The spider-killer "bone-house" wasp

The females of this tiny Chinese wasp (Deuteragenia ossarium) ought to win the mother of the year award. Her deadly ritual begins when she carves out a deep hole in a hollow plant stem. She hunts and kills a spider and stuffs it, along with a single egg, in the bottom of the hole. The spider provides all the food and nutrients a growing wasp larva could ever need. A bit of soil is used to insulate the larvae and spider, and then a new dead spider and egg get placed on top of it. Eventually, the entire hollowed out plant stem is filled with alternating dead spiders, wasp larvae and soil. Then, once the stem is full of her offspring, she piles a bunch of dead ants into the top. The ants, sometimes as many as thirteen of them, help form a nasty chemical barrier, keeping her babies and their murdered spider nannies safe from predators who can sniff out wasp larvae until they're ready to hatch.

The unusual fanged frog

Fanged Frogs 2015 05 22
Djoko T. Iskandar, Ben J. Evans, Jimmy A. McGuire

Most frogs lay eggs in their ponds, and then those eggs turn into tadpoles. But not this Indonesian amphibian. There are more than 6,400 known species of frogs, and fewer than a dozen have internal fertilisation – most froggy eggs and sperm meet in the pond itself. Of those few species that do require some sort of sex to procreate, all either lay fertilised eggs or give birth to the tiniest little froglets. But this extraordinary frog (Limnonectes larvaepartus) gives birth to tiny little tadpoles instead, the only one in the world known to do it. One female even gave birth to a tadpole in the hand of a scientist as soon as he picked her up!

THE Undersized "giant" walking stick  

Giant Stick Insect 2015 05 22
Image: Jonathan Brecko

It belongs to a group of insects known as "giant walking sticks", but this clever bit of camouflage maxed out at just nine inches. Despite the fact that the Vietnamese town where this walking stick was discovered, Tam Dao, is a favourite with entomologists, it wasn't until last year that the species (Phryganistria tamdaoensis) was discovered and described. That suggests there are probably a lot of walking sticks left undiscovered. And that's probably by design: they are very good at pretending to be twigs.

The sea slug stunner

Most slugs are really rather drab, but every once in a while there's one that's so beautiful they hardly deserve to be called slugs. Meet Phyllodesmium acanthorhinum, a brilliant blue, red, and gold slug discovered off the coast of Japan. It's not just pretty, it's also a so-called "missing link" between a group of gastropods that feed on hydroids and another that feast on corals.

The hiding-in-plain-sight Christmas plant

Christmas Plant 2015 05 22

This beautiful red and green bromeliad plant (Tillandsia religiosa) has been incorporated into religious displays in Mexican villages for years. Despite their annual usage, they hadn't ever been formally described in the botanical literature ... which makes you wonder about the other species that might be sitting around, already well known to local cultures, but shrouded in scientific mystery.

The pufferfish artisans 

Puffer Fish 2015 05 22
Image: Yoji Okata

For 20 years, scientists were baffled by so-called undersea "crop circles" that were popping up off the coast of Japan. But never fear, these intricate circles containing geometric designs, some of them more than two meters in diameter, are not the work of aliens. They belong to a new type of doe-eyed pufferfish (Torquigener albomaculosus), and males who hope to woo females with their artistry create them as nests. The ridges and troughs carved into the seafloor by the males have a second function too: they reduce the water current in the centre of the circle, creating a safe spot for a female to deposit her eggs. Once she lays her eggs and they hatch, the beautiful circle is abandoned. If the male is lucky enough to spawn again the following year, he'll first have to make a new circle somewhere else.