It’s all too easy to believe that everything worth discovering has already been found, and that the age of exploration is over. But some recent discoveries make the point that it’s still possible to uncover something new. In Canada, Adam Shoalts discovered seven waterfalls while traveling on the Again River. In one case, he discovered the waterfall by hurtling over it, a roughly 40 foot drop. One photo of his canoe makes it clear how lucky he was to have survived. A number of people have argued that other travelers had encountered these waterfalls. It is difficult to imagine that the First Nations in this region, in particular the Moose Cree in the Western James Bay area, were not familiar with these obstacles to navigation. I sometimes suspect that during the height of the fur trade they may have had a better geographical knowledge of northern rivers than exists even now. Nonetheless, none of these waterfalls were on any map. As Shoalts told the BBC in an interview: “There’s still a lot of work left to be done. That’s reality,” said Shoalts. “Canada’s so vast. Even if I do this the rest of my life, all my work would still only be a drop in the bucket. We don’t know the world nearly as well as we think we do.”
Closer to the pole, scientists have recently found an immense canyon hundreds of miles in length, ten miles in width, and up to 2,400 feet deep, which runs beneath Greenland. You can see how the canyon was discovered in a video at this site. Of course, no human has ever seen this canyon, which has been covered by an ice cap for four million years. Scientists were only able to identify the canyon by using radar. Still, the fact that a geographical object of this size has only now been identified suggests how imperfect our knowledge is.
Not all discoveries are made out in the field. One recent find was found in a drawer in the Smithsonian. Kristofer Helgen realized that a mammal specimen was something new, and pulled together a team to travel to Ecuador to see if he could find this mammal in the wild. The remarkable thing was that they found one their very first day in the forest, which makes it clear that it had been hiding in plain sight all along. So now we have a new animal, the Olinguito.
As fascinating as this discovery is, it was less striking then a discovery of over forty new species in the caldera of an extinct volcano in Papau New Guinea in 2009, as Robert Booth described in an article in the Guardian: “A lost world populated by fanged frogs, grunting fish and tiny bear-like creatures has been discovered in a remote volcanic crater on the Pacific island of Papua New Guinea. A team of scientists from Britain, the United States and Papua New Guinea found more than 40 previously unidentified species when they climbed into the kilometre-deep crater of Mount Bosavi and explored a pristine jungle habitat teeming with life that has evolved in isolation since the volcano last erupted 200,000 years ago. In a remarkably rich haul from just five weeks of exploration, the biologists discovered 16 frogs which have never before been recorded by science, at least three new fish, a new bat and a giant rat, which may turn out to be the biggest in the world.” This week scientists announced that there may even be a new element in the Periodic Table. There’s hope for the Explorer’s Club and all romantics yet.
Are you interested in Canadian myths and Indigenous peoples? Check out my new book Dangerous Spirits: the Windigo in Myth and History, which is available now in Canada here.
Shawn Smallman, Portland State University
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