January 25, 2013
New Study Debunks Claims That Most Species Will Vanish Before They Are Discovered
April Flowers for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
"Surprisingly, few species have gone extinct, to our knowledge. Of course, there will have been some species which have disappeared without being recorded, but not many we think," Professor Nigel Stork, Deputy Head of the Griffith School of Environment, said.
The findings, published in the latest issue of Science, reveal that the claims are based on two misconceptions. First, an over-estimation of how many species may exist on Earth. The second misconception is the erroneous belief that the number of taxonomists (people who describe and identify species) is declining.
There are 5 +/- 3 million species on Earth — far fewer than has been widely believed — of which 1.5 million species have been named, the study asserts, re-affirming previous estimates, which scan the upper and lower reaches of this range.
"Over-estimates of the number of species on Earth are self-defeating because they can make attempts to discover and conserve biodiversity appear to be hopeless," said Dr Costello. "Our work suggests that this is far from the case. We believe that with just a modest increase in effort in taxonomy and conservation, most species could be discovered and protected from extinction."
The team also conclude that there have never been so many taxonomists, both professional and amateurs, with numbers nearly 50,000. The scientific community continues to grow due to the development of science in Asia and South America, which are rich in biodiversity and where many new species are being discovered.
"While this is the case in the developed world where governments are reducing funding, in developing nations the number of taxonomists is actually on the rise," said Stork "World-wide there are now two to three times as many taxonomist describing species as there were 20 years ago."
More species are likely to be discovered than to go extinct, the research suggests, but the authors do not underplay the seriousness of the threats to habitat and species alike. Over-hunting, habitat loss and climate change could mean that the extinction rate could increase very rapidly in the future.
According to Costello, naming species is critical to their conservation because it gives them formal recognition to existence, making conservation far easier. Discovery, including exploration of remote and less studied habitats, provides evidence to underpin conservation efforts.
The authors offer suggestions for increasing the rate of special discovery, including: getting more people involved in the work; international coordination of exploration and specimen collections; the development of freely available online databases; and financial support from governments and other organizations for these efforts.
Although conservation efforts the last few years have done a great job in protecting some areas rich in biodiversity, this might be a short-lived reprieve.
"Climate change will dramatically change species survival rates, particularly when you factor in other drivers such as overhunting and habitat loss," Professor Stork said.
"At this stage we have no way of knowing by how much extinction rates may escalate. But once global warming exceeds the 2 degree barrier, we can expect to see the scale of loss many people already believe is happening. Higher temperature rises coupled with other environmental impacts will lead to mass extinctions."