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A new name is born - whip-sprickets

We know that naming new organisms is critical for the study of biodiversity. Names allow us to more reliably communicate knowledge of species and other taxa.

Taxonomists regularly coin new scientific names based on Latin or Greek. Occasionally we'll also suggest a new common name so that non-scientists can share our discoveries more easily.

And just occasionally, a newly coined common name is so delightful, so sounding-as-though-it-has-always-been (or should-have-been), that it simply must be taken up into the dictionaries immediately. So it is with the beaut new name for the arachnid order Schizomida, just now given an entirely new vernacular name - whip-sprickets.

Whip-sprickets are usually small (5 mm or less) and not often seen. There are around 350 known species in the world. Australia, particularly the arid Pilbara region of Western Australia, is a centre of diversity. And the region is now even richer with the announcement, in a paper in the journal Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, that 56 new species have been discovered in the region by whip-spricket taxonomist Kym Abrams and colleagues from the Western Australian Museum.

Almost all of the new species spend their entire lives underground, where with other subterranean arthropods they make up the troglofauna. The story of the troglofauna is a remarkable one. After its breakup from Gondwana and during its subsequent drift northwards, Australia has changed from a wet continent with extensive rainforests to a dry continent with extensive deserts. And as the once-vast rainforests died out, many of the invertebrates - including whip-sprickets - that once lived amongst the litter on the forest floor became extinct. Some, though, went underground, and evolved into the species that Kym and colleagues have now discovered.

A specimen of one of the new schizomid species from the Pilbara. Image source: WA Museum.

Of course, these species are not just evolutionarily interesting and important. The Pilbara troglofauna, including the whip-sprickets, live in vugs (another great word) - the cracks and crevices in rocks, especially in orebodies. Many live in the iron ore deposits that support the region's vast export mining industry. Many are also short-range endemics, often restricted to a single orebody - and hence, a single mine-site.

The discovery of so many new whip-sprickets in the region provides essential knowledge to help ensure their conservation. The Pilbara's whip-sprickets are a remarkable testament to the persistence of life through millions of years of almost unimaginable global change. We need to understand their taxonomy and species diversity if we are to ensure their survival, after tens of millions of years of evolution, in the face of new global challenges.

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