A team of researchers has published a paper claiming that ‘most of the world’s plant and animal species could be named before they go extinct’ and, furthermore, it could be achieved this century.
Describing and naming new species is important as it helps drive interest in conservation. A species, once identified, can then become the focus of efforts to monitor and conserve it. The more we know about biodiversity, the more evolutionary gaps are filled, and the more we are able to explain the life histories of species on Earth. The millions of species that share our planet provide many free and valuable services which are vital for human health and well-being. These services range from providing clean air and to fresh water, recycling nutrients, pollinating flowering plants and controlling the climate.
“Naming a species gives formal recognition to its existence, making conservation easier,” said lead author of the paper Associate Professor Dr Mark Costello, from The University of Auckland.
The researchers propose that the target is possible due to an increase in taxonomists (people who classify, characterise and describe species), combined with a reduction in the estimate of the number of species on earth. An increase in both amateur and professional taxonomists has been driven by the growth of publicly available information on taxonomy via the internet. This increase has been seen predominantly in areas where it is needed most – areas rich in biodiversity such as Asia and South America. The recent surge in the number of taxonomists will also have gone some way towards reducing what the Convention on Biological Diversity has acknowledged as the ‘taxonomic impediment’. This is an issue created by knowledge gaps in our taxonomic system and a shortage of trained taxonomists, which in turn has affected our ability to conserve and understand the benefits gained from biodiversity.
“We believe that with just a modest increase in effort in taxonomy and conservation, most species could be discovered and protected from extinction,” said Dr Costello.
New species estimates
Current species estimates range from 2 to 8.7 million species on Earth, compared to previous estimates that have been as high as 100 million. Around 1.7 million species have already been described, with a large number still to be described, and potentially many more yet to be discovered. However, recent estimates are still significantly lower than those previously suggested, leading Dr Costello and his colleagues to conclude that with a small increase in the number of employed taxonomists, and more financial support and coordination within the international scientific community, the remainder of the world’s species could feasibly be described within the current century.
“We’ve discovered three times more people now naming species than there were ever before. We’re in the golden age of taxonomy,” added Dr Costello.
Controversy over the prioritisation of naming new species
While it may seem plausible to Dr Costello and his colleagues that the number of species on Earth, and therefore the rate of species extinction, is lower than previously thought, and that ‘species are more likely to be described than become extinct’, some remain sceptical. Jean-Christophe Vié, Deputy Director of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Global Species Programme is less convinced:
“Extinction is usually underestimated. It’s more important to fight extinction than to describe or catalogue all species…. I am worried by the message implying that to conserve species you need to know everything about them. You can do a lot of protection even in the absence of knowledge.”
Vié points out that conservation of species is possible without knowing every single species within an area. Although he believes it possible that we could catalogue life on Earth, he also reminds us that ‘we don’t have the luxury of time’.
Professor Georgina Mace, from the Centre for Population Biology at Imperial College London, is also cautious about praising the new publication. Like Vié, she is not convinced about the idea that the names of all species must be known.
She states that once conservation plans are in place for places rich in biodiversity, species within these areas will benefit ‘whether named or not’.
A cautionary tale
Although there has been a decided increase in the number of described and named species, maintaining the same rate of species discovery in the field will become more difficult the fewer species there are to discover. As the backlog of collected specimens are named, and the discovery of new species slows, the current rate of newly described species will fall. Mace concludes that efforts therefore must be strategically triaged between ‘discovering, describing, monitoring and conserving’.
The researchers of this paper acknowledge the tentative good news for the conservation of biodiversity. However, co-author Professor Nigel Stork warns that ‘Climate change will dramatically change species’ survival rates, particularly when you factor in other drivers such as over-hunting and habitat loss’. This is no time to be complacent when life on Earth is at stake.
Read more on these stories at BBC News – World’s unknown species ‘can be named’ before they go extinct and The Telegraph – Extinction of millions of species ‘greatly exaggerated’.
Find out more about the importance of newly discovered species on ARKive’s Newly Discovered Species topic page.
Kaz Armour – ARKive Text Author