Can We Catalog Life on Earth Before It’s Gone?
Mark J. Costello, Robert M. May and Nigel E. Stork have some groundbreaking news at Nature, noting both that it may be possible to accurately catalog life on Earth within the next century, and that the extinction rate may be lower than previously believed.
Their paper is an important entry in the ongoing discussion about how many species live on Earth, and how many we are likely to identify before they vanish forever. Their findings may surprise some people, particularly their note about the fact that the Earth probably hosts between two and eight million species, not at least ten, as has been recently argued. That’s actually great news, because it means that we might have a chance when it comes to documenting the amazing creatures of this planet from the highest peaks to the deepest ocean trenches.
In their paper, they acknowledge that extinction is a known issue, but that doom and gloom prognoses may distract from more practical matters, like documenting species and taking action on specific conservation measures. They say that several key components could be brought together to target the successful identification, description and cataloging of new species, which are being discovered all the time, although most of them don’t make the news. New beetles, for example, are regularly discovered, but they aren’t exactly the stuff of which thrilling headlines are made — at least, not for most of us.
Three actions are key to a project to radically increase the number of species successfully identified, argue the researchers. The first is more taxonomists — the people who take to the field to locate new species. This can include amateurs as well as professionals, given that some new species have been found by people like curious butterfly enthusiasts and bird watchers. To get more taxonomists active, it may be necessary to promote increased training and dedicate resources to expanding and improving programs at colleges and universities around the world.
The second is more funding, but not necessarily a lot of it, especially when compared to other scientific endeavors. Sending researchers to the field can get expensive, especially in remote locations, and they need funding support to make the trip, acquire and manage the equipment they’ll need, process and publish their data, and perform other tasks related to cataloging species. In addition to that, conservationists will need funding to study habitats and other key components of survival to determine what is needed and where to help species thrive, and how it could be most efficiently applied.
Finally, the international scientific community needs to coordinate on a united effort. While taxonomy has always been an international enterprise, as has the prevention of extinctions, that efforts needs to be more coordinated, and more organized, than it has been in the past. These three factors combined could help researchers track and identify new species around the world, like humble but critical beetles and fascinating, adorable new mammals.
The more we understand about not just who inhabits the planet with us but what they do, the better we can understand what is happening around us. Some species play a key role in conditioning the soil, managing populations of other animals, shaping the landscape, and more. Losing them means more than just a lost chance to see an interesting plant or animal, but the potential of a hole in the ecosystem.
Photo credit: Tamara Masters.