By Quentin Wheeler
In recent years, newfound species have included brilliant blue tarantulas from Brazil, a polka-dotted Pacific Ocean nudibranch, and a pink, spiny millipede from Thailand. And who would not coo over a chubby, lumbering Peruvian water bear or a translucent green glass frog from Ecuador? (See "An Ode to the Odd and Obscure.")
I understand the appeal of species like birds and primates that, with beautiful plumage or similarities to ourselves, are relatively well known and attractive. What's more, discoveries of new species in these groups are increasingly rare events.
But the simple fact is that no two species are alike, and each has something unique to teach us about ecology or evolution.
Largely ignored by popular media, scientists name about 18,000 new species each year, and the nearly two million species named since the 1750s have only begun to reveal the biological diversity of our most remarkable planet. (Read "Building the Ark" in National Geographic magazine.)
That's because scientists predict as many as ten million kinds of plants and animals await discovery, and that does not take into account the microbial world, which may well be even more diverse.
Now or Never: Count Our Species
Biodiversity is threatened on a scale never before witnessed by humans. By some estimates, species are going extinct a thousand times more rapidly than in recent geologic time, while the pace of species discovery is unchanged since the 1940s.
Unabated, the current rate of species extinction could lead within three centuries to the first mass extinction event on our planet in 65 million years and a loss of 75 percent of all species alive today.
A prudent first step would be to complete an inventory of species. Stated bluntly, if we do not know what kinds of plants and animals exist or where they live, how are we to detect invasions by foreign species, losses of species from ecosystems, or shifts in distributions due to climate change? Ignorant of more than 80 percent of the flora and fauna, we are flying blind into an unprecedented storm of extinction. (See "Pictures: Pygmy Sloth Among 100 Species Most at Risk [2012\.") More....