Pixabay / Kaz

What don’t we know about planet Earth? Turns out, quite a lot. We like to think of ourselves as experts on our homeworld, but the truth is there’s still so much we don’t know. We make new discoveries about it every single day. Many of these discoveries are of the strange variety, and many of them raise fascinating questions about our world and how it works.

Unusual finds

For example, the recent discovery of a new hybrid species of warbler in northeast Ohio. The bird was initially noticed because it was singing a peculiar song, one made up of pieces from two other known birds’ songs. Though specimens were captured in 2014 and 2015, only recently have DNA tests confirmed what bird watchers already suspected: this is a new species, a hybrid of the Cerulean Warbler and the Northern Parula. The new species sings a mixed-up song because its mother belonged to one species, its father to the other.

Meanwhile, a bit further south, in the Gulf of Mexico, marine biologists have identified a new species of shark. While most of us get a little nervous when we hear the word “shark,” this one won’t be taking a bite out of any fishing trawlers. It’s 5.5 inches long and it glows in the dark. Found quite by chance during a study of the mating habits of sperm whales, this type of “pocket shark,” dubbed Mollisquama mississippiensis, has a series of fluorescent light-producing photophores along its body. In addition, it has a pouch beneath its front fins that spouts glow-in-the-dark liquid. This is only the second pocket shark ever found and both are members of totally different species. Even stranger, the earlier specimen was found in the Pacific Ocean, a completely different body of water from this one.

Then there’s the hoodwinker sunfish. Its thin, two-meter-wide body confused Californians when it showed up on a beach earlier this year, and it took some time for scientists to identify exactly what it was. The hoodwinker itself was only discovered two years ago and it has only ever been seen in the southern hemisphere, so its appearance in California was something of a surprise.

Add these to other discoveries in recent years, including a live giant squid seen for the first time swimming in its natural habitat, a weird sea creature that looks like a floating headless chicken, and a giant 1.5 inch bee that hadn’t been seen in 38 years, and you realize just how much is left out there to discover.

What can we learn?

More interesting than the finds themselves, though, are what these weird animals might tell us about changes taking place in our global environment. The new warbler, for instance, raises important questions about the American ecosystem. On the one hand, it may signal that certain bird species – in this case, the Cerulean Warbler, whose populations have declined by 75% since the ’60s – are having even more trouble surviving. The fact that one apparently chose a mate from another species suggests it was having trouble finding a mate from its own. Another possibility is that due to climate changes, the breeding grounds of the two species have begun to overlap, leading to more interaction between them. While this would be better news for the Cerulean, certainly it reminds us that the world is undergoing serious changes.

The pocket shark and sunfish may suggest similar sorts of changes to the Earth. Since both species were discovered at some distance from where other examples have been found, their migration patterns may be changing, reflecting an increase in global climate changes. Furthermore, while their discoveries might simply indicate science is doing a better job of uncovering the unusual life in our oceans, they could also be signs of more significant problems. For one thing, many new species have only been discovered as the polar ice caps have begun to melt, releasing all sorts of unusual creatures into the wider oceans. Additionally, the fact that they are turning up may suggest declines in other species’ populations. That is, maybe we’re finding them because there are fewer and fewer creatures out there in the ocean so we’re starting to notice more of the rarer ones.

Where do we go from here?

It remains to be seen how President Trump’s recent modification of the Endangered Species Act may affect certain animal populations on the planet. One thing is certain though: continuing to study all these strange and wonderful species may be the only real way we can hope to better understand the Earth.