Somewhere Out There, Millions of Species Await Discovery
Tina Butler, mongabay.com
May 17, 2005
Discoveries like these put our relative ignorance into stunning perspective. It is conceivable that there are more organisms on Earth that have not been identified and documented than ones that have. The current number of species across all kingdoms has been put at approximately 1.75 million. A team of scientists from the United Kingdom and the United States has devised a program called the Catalog of Life, which aims to consolidate all the various indexes of species from around the globe, with the goal of producing a single, definitive encyclopedia of life. The estimated completion of the project is 2011, when the catalog will then begin to absorb the thousands of subsequent discoveries. Annually, there are 15,000 to 20,000 new species identified in the animal kingdom alone. The UN Global Diversity Assessment has estimated that Earth supports close to 13.6 million species.
As previously inaccessible realms such as undersea thermal vents and regions of the upper atmosphere are explored, new discoveries are becoming more and more commonplace. But more familiar habitats and even creatures are housing previously unknown organisms. There was a recent discovery of 200 new species of yeast found living in the guts of beetles.
Outside the bellies of beasts, the tropical rainforest has long been noted for its dense biodiversity, but biologists are only now penetrating the life-rich canopy level and making new discoveries. Oceans are also contributing a large proportion of species to the newly identified list. Some 500 new species of fish were revealed by the Census of Marine Life in the first three years of this decade alone. The census contributors estimate there could be ten times more species waiting to be documented. Compared with the animal kingdom, biologists have a much stronger grasp on the plant world. Approximately 75 percent of plant life had been classified and only 2000 or so species are discovered annually. There are several areas that have particular potential as reservoirs of undiscovered species, including Papua New Guinea (especially for plants) and the tropical rainforests in Central Africa, which have been fairy inaccessible due to local civil strife.
Obstacles to access aside, new species are surfacing with great regularity across the globe. And many are animals, not simply obscure types of fungus or bacteria. One such creature that escapes existing classification is a long-whiskered rodent known in its native Laos as the Kha-Nyou. First sighted by Dr. Robert Timmins of the Wildlife Conservation Society on a table at a hunter's market in central Laos, the animal most closely resembles a chinchilla or a guinea pig, but possesses marked differences. This species is so distinct, it represents an entire new mammalian family. Very little is known about this rodent species, other than it appears to be a nocturnal vegetarian that gives birth to a single offspring at a time as opposed to a litter. The Kha-Nyou also seems to prefer areas of limestone outcroppings and forest cover. Scientists performing DNA and bone structure analysis estimate that this species diverged from other rodents millions of years ago.
Two new species of sportive lemur, similar to this species, were discovered recently in Madagascar
It is surprising that on a planet that has been so comprehensively probed, researched and trammeled, there are still new species of mammals that have managed to evade human detection.
What lies ahead is an immense challenge that stretches far into the future. Based on the past rate, one study estimates it will take another 1500 to 15,000 years to complete the global inventory of life. With new technology -- especially the internet, high quality images and DNA sequencing -- and a growing army of biologists, this process is accelerating, but even with these advances, humans would likely benefit in slowing the destruction of remaining wild spaces on Earth, because who knows what may be hiding there.