Washington — Discovering, describing and cataloging 10 million life forms is a tremendously large undertaking, but an international group of scientists presents that challenge in an article in the life sciences journal Systematics and Biodiversity. This group of 39 scientists, scholars and engineers proposes that Earth’s biosphere be fully cataloged in 50 years before untold numbers of life forms are driven extinct.
“Earth’s biosphere has proven to be a vast frontier that, even after centuries of exploration, remains largely uncharted,” the March 30 article says. “Exploring the biosphere is much like exploring the universe. The more we learn, the more complex and surprising the biosphere and its story turn out to be.”
Two million of Earth’s species are known, and new discoveries increase that number by about 18,000 each year. Experts estimate that another 10 million species are neither recognized nor cataloged by science. Thousands of species are potentially threatened by loss of habitat, encroachment of other species or human activity.
Approximately 30 percent of Earth’s species could become extinct this century, according to one prominent U.S. expert on biodiversity, Peter Raven, president emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden. “For the first time in human history, the rate of species extinction may exceed that of species discovery.”
The article’s authors, hailing from a range of academic and natural history institutions, call for a “comprehensive mission to explore and document Earth’s species.” They call for a wide-ranging partnership including ecologists and biologists, but also information scientists and industrial project managers.
“We have all the intellectual and technological capacity for rapid biodiversity discovery, combining the power of science, industry and society for a most noble cause: discovering and understanding the planet we inhabit,” said Johannes Vogel, director of the Museum of Natural History in Berlin.
The authors also emphasize the urgency for progress in broadening human understanding of the biosphere.
“The pace of environmental change and species extinctions indicates that we need a comprehensive inventory of species and we need it now,” said Quentin Wheeler, the lead author of the article and a senior sustainability scientist at the Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University. “Without exploring, describing and classifying Earth’s species we may miss many of our best opportunities to learn from natural selection how to solve countless problems related to our own sustainable survival.”
The looming potential extinction of many species adds urgency to the project, as does the near-term retirement of a generation of scientific experts in flora and fauna who have not passed their knowledge to a new generation.
“Without this information and these skills, studying nature will be like introducing a probe into a black box,” said article co-author Antonio G. Valdecasas, with the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Madrid, Spain.
The article lays out an action plan, calling for a standard set of procedures for collection and description of all specimens added to collections from this point forward. It also calls for a broader workforce to be applied to the work, including amateurs and professionals, the implementation of digital technologies in research infrastructure and greater coordination among international scientists and natural history museums.
Scientists who co-authored the study are affiliated with a range of institutions, including the Woods Hole Marine Biology Laboratory in Massachusetts; the New York Botanical Garden; the American Museum of Natural History, New York; the U.S. Department of Agriculture; and the University of Vienna.
Systematics and Biodiversity is a life science journal published for London’s Natural History Museum.