Diversity, Discovery, and a Ticking Clock: Species Extinctions May Be Outpacing New Species Discoveries, Scientists Warn

Article excerpt

Professional and amateur taxonomists around the world have better tools at their disposal for identifying new species, including some that may be of vital significance. But they may be running out of time.

"If you are looking for the most sensitive canary in the mine for early alerts of environmental change, it will be found among the millions of species, most of which we do not yet know," Arizona State University entomologist Quentin D. Wheeler told THE FUTURIST.

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Biologists may have thus far discovered only about one-sixth of the planet's wildlife, according to a recent paper in Systematics and Biodiversity, for which Wheeler served as lead author. While scientists have identified about 2 million species of plants, animals, fungi, and other life forms (excluding bacteria), there could be another 10 million waiting for someone to find them, estimate the paper's 39 co-authors, among whom are noted biologist Edward O. Wilson and botanist Peter H. Raven.

The authors urge the world community to act fast, however: Human destruction of wildlife habitats could wipe many species out before anyone ever discovers them.

"It's probably a good thing to learn all we can before it is too late," says Wheeler.

Some species groups are more obscure than others, according to Raven, president emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden. He notes that insects, nematodes, mites, and fungi are among the "least-well-known" groups, and thus may represent large swaths of the hitherto undiscovered. There are about 16,000 known nematode species, for example--this includes roundworms and animal parasites--but the total number that exists might be around 1 million.

Raven also foresees more discovering to do in certain geographic areas. The tropics, Southeast Asia, and New Guinea will all be key locales--ecologically rich and sparsely populated by humans, but unfortunately also very threatened, he says.

In fact, human civilization as a whole may now be killing species off more quickly than it is discovering them, according to Raven, who estimates that 30% of Earth's species will be extinct by the century's end. He blames climate change and decimation of species habitats by resource-hungry humans.

"Overconsumption doesn't leave a lot of room for the future of biological diversity," Raven says.

Wheeler agrees, noting that many species occur in only one or a few places and depend on a particular set of other species. As habitats are destroyed or damaged, some species cannot cope.

"The biodiversity crisis has made it clear that in spite of our most heroic efforts we will witness the extinction of a large number of species, possibly numbering in the millions," says Wheeler.

The co-authors have this good news, though: Tools for discovering and classifying species have evolved considerably in the digital era. The Internet and mobile communications greatly facilitate information sharing among taxonomists. Wheeler looks forward to nature collections everywhere being able to connect, so that any new discovery could instantly get the attention of any expert, anywhere.

"By using off-the-shelf technology, we could increase the speed of species classification by an order of magnitude," he says.

Digital media is also an effective means of sharing species news with the public, he notes Amateur taxonomists are already active today, participating in nature clubs that visit sites and look for new specimens.

Digital technology's further development could make it easier for professional taxonomists to guide amateurs on what to look for. Those amateurs will then help the professionals find more new species, more quickly.

"Until now there was a glass ceiling that prohibited most amateurs from going as far as they might like to go in doing taxonomy," says Wheeler. …