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Every Species on Earth 308

Posted by michael
from the mostly-bugs dept.
nickynicky9doors writes: "National Geographic News relates that scientists to date have identified less than 2 million distinct species with from 10 million to more than 100 million still undiscovered. Likening this dearth of information to doing chemistry knowing only one third of the periodic table, biologist Terry Gosliner is involved in the All Species Foundation. The foundation is attempting to discover, identify and classify every living species and place the catalogue online over the next 25 years. It is hoped new technology and new recruits to the field of taxonomy will make the timetable viable."
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Every Species on Earth

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  • by mikeage (119105) <slashdot&mikeage,net> on Wednesday March 06, 2002 @02:47PM (#3119957) Homepage
    [we know] less than 2 million distinct species with from 10 million to more than 100 million still undiscovered. Likening this dearth of information to doing chemistry knowing only one third of the periodic table...

    Seems to this non-biologist that it's more like knowing only 1/5th to 1/50th (or to be more precise, 1/50th to 1/5th) of the periodic table...
    • For example, the discovery of Santa's flying reindeer [] would be a big step on the road to understanding the physics of his journey, akin in chemistry to discovering the transuranic series, and would have much more impact than finding yet another sign of a stressed creator []. For example, the CIA would be absolutely fascinated to get a handle one someone who ``knows when you've been naughty []''.

      ``But seriously folks,'' add to this the 250,000+ species known from fossils [] and it should be clear that at least every 8th-to-80th transitional form should have shown up in the fossil record we've exhumed so far (BTW, the above ref cites TL Erwin in The Tropical Forest Canopy within Biodiversity, 1988, NAP (WA DC) for a generous ceiling of 30 million species, mostly insects). If we had equal parts transitional and stable species (really, we need many times that because most attempted changes would fail according to any reasonable theory), for example, there should be an absolute scratching minimum of about 2,000 known transitional species discovered in the fossil record by now.

      While we're having fun, take DM Raup's figure of 99.9% ( Extinction: Bad Genes or Bad Luck? [] , 1991, WW Norton NY - see this too [] for commentary and a ceiling of 40M species) extinct species, there should be at least 20 transitional species alive today, and using the 10-30 million species range vs 2 million known, we should have found somewhere between 1 and 4 of those by now.

      Maybe one of those is Santa's reindeer? Which, BTW, are probably [] female...
  • Why must we count everything?! We're like Midas, only everything we touch seems to disappear.

    I think the stats are:

    ???? -> 1900 - 75 species extinct
    1900 -> 1970 - 75 more species exitinct
    1970 -> now - 75,000 species extinct

    Do we really wanna find them all? :P
    • by Thud457 (234763)
      "???? -> 1900 - 75 species extinct"

      I believe that may be inaccurate. []
      • by ekephart (256467)
        Actually its not inaccurate at all, just very ambiguous. 4 ?s simply means there is some date before 1900 at which time there would be 75 species purged between that date and 1900.

        Of course you are right in implying that the parent post has little if any merit as a valid relation.
        • Yeah, what he said! (And I'm the parent poster in question, too. :)

          I certainly didn't provide the stats for any other reason than potential food for thought. I'm certainly not saying the sky is falling, although its hard to disprove that humans are responsible for extinctions for reasons other than over hunting in a way that no species has been responsible for other species' extinction before.
    • it gives people something to do. I personally don't care if we know every single last species on the planet but that is me.

      As far as extinction goes. It happens. It happened in the past, it will continue to happen. I for one am for letting things happen as they do. When the dinos roamed it was for the most part hot, humid, and much like what we are heading for. If that is the case fine. If it kills off 90% of the species currently alive, fine. It happened before and new species formed.
      • There is a difference between things happening, and humans making things happen. We have the ability to exterminate almost any species we take a dislike to. We have done so with the Dodo, the passenger pidgeon, the Tasmaninan tiger and so on. If humans hadn't come along, the Dodo would be still living on Mauritius perfectly happily, as it had done for thousands of years. Instead we killed it off in less than a hundred years.
      • by HypodermicEyes (154869) on Wednesday March 06, 2002 @04:37PM (#3120737)
        Yes, extinction has happened without the involvement of humans and it will continue to happen without the involvement of humans. (that sentence has a double-entendre, btw. ;) That is not in dispute.

        What is in dispute is the value humans give to diversity.
        -There is economic value to diversity in the form useful genes and groups of genes. Also, zoos and nature documentaries are fairly lucrative. ;)
        -There is ethical value to diversity. While you may not care much about the wonderful variety of organisms, there are a great many people who do. And that matters.

        As for the value of searching out new species --- you can never predict the value of a scientific endeavour. In this case however, you can make an educated guess that discovering new species will provide new insight into evolutionary, ecological, anatomical, physiological, genetic, biochemical, and behavioural processes. That in itself is quite a return on the investment! Imagine what the world would be like if no one had gone out looking for archaebacteria. We wouldn't know about taq polymerase, an enzyme isolated from the archaebacterium Thermophilus aquaticus -- the world wouldn't have the polymerase chain reaction as we know it, and that means genetic research would be hampered to some degree. You just NEVER know what you're gonna find if you go looking. You're bound to be surprised.

        Someone already mentioned the dodo... I would add to that by mentioning the Calvaria major tree. Without the dodo to ingest its seeds and prepare them for germination, the tree is doomed in its natural habitat. No C. major trees have sprouted since the dodo went the way of the dodo. I believe there currently is a group that's trying to preserve the species by using turkeys instead to digest the seed coat. Now consider all those other species suffering a similar fate because their ecologies aren't well understood.
  • What about the cutting down of the rain forest? Aren't things dying out all the time in that region because of industrialism? How are you going to keep an existing database of everything living if it changes so frequently? Sounds like a big undertaking with a less than good return.
  • HOLLISTER: OK. Just one thing before the disco, Holly tells me that he's sensed a non-human life form aboard.

    LISTER: Sir, it's Rimmer!

  • by GigsVT (208848) on Wednesday March 06, 2002 @02:51PM (#3119983) Journal
    "Twenty-five years is one human generation," he said, "but it's six generations of students." If each successive student generation inspires similar growth in the next, "at the end of that pyramid you could have several hundred thousand new taxonomists."

    Just classify a bug and send this email to 10 of your friends, and put your name at the bottom of the list, and remove the person at the top of the list!
  • How can they possibly know how many species are undiscovered?
    • The same way you know how many toes you have on your feet, count. Oh wait... they can't count unfound stuff can they? Good question.... perhaps they picked a number that would return good grant money?
      • Various people have made analytical estimates of the number of undescribed species based on what we know about the numbers and distribution of described species.

        Estimates have varied widely. The one thing we do know is that there are a lot more undescribed than described species.

        Why do non-scientists always greet an honest statement of uncertainty in the actual number - an order-of-magnitude estimate - with derision of this sort?

        After all, a hell of a lot of software schedule estimates are no more precise. Mozilla comes to mind...
        • Besides the issue of "how do you count what you haven't found yet", there is also considerable discrepancy in what different classifiers will call species or subspecies. The usual definition of species now is "will interbreed in the wild to produce viable and fertile offspring", but that sometimes conflicts with traditional species. (1) In the gulls, there are subspecies that interbreed with the subspecies to their east and west, but where the circle closed around the Artic Sea, two subspecies met and are too different to recognize each other as possible mates. (2) Apparently all the species of genus Canis (dogs, wolves, coyotes) can and sometimes do interbreed, although it's not entirely normal for dogs and wolves to _want_ to get that close; so is that one species with several subspecies, or 3-4 different species in North America alone? (3) In Europe, IIRC there is a bird, traditionally considered a single species, but which DNA testing shows to be five non-interbreeding species.

          As we continue to collect more data, we're going to see many more of these borderline cases, and the "splitters" are going to count two or three times as many species as the "lumpers" in the well characterized populations.
          • In Europe, IIRC there is a bird, traditionally considered a single species, but which DNA testing shows to be five non-interbreeding species.

            The same is true of at least one species here in North America, too ... I'm not 100% certain but the name that comes to mind is "red crossbill". Take that with the same order of uncertainty we give to total species count estimates, though!

    • On the off chance this was a serious question...
      This is estimated using various sampling procedures. In simplified form, you can sparsely sample a large area for some taxon of interest. That gives you a low estimate of the number of species (you know you're missing lots of rare ones). Then you progressively more intensely sample smaller areas. (Why not intensely sample large areas? It's simply not possible to do it with available labor, plus intensive sampling tends to be destructive.) After a series of these efforts, culminating in complete sampling of very small areas (e.g. bagging an entire tree, gassing it, and identifying every single insect on it), you have a relationship between the intensity of sampling and the number of species (of a particular group) that you find. You can use that relationship to make (admittedly gross) estimates of how many species are still undiscovered in the rest of the sparsely-sampled world.
      • A technique similar to that is used to count hairs on people's heads. You square off a section and count that area then multiply...simple. You may be off by a hundred or so but you still get a pretty accurate representation of the picture. Same principle for the old 'grains of sand on a beach' problem.
    • The technique they use to estimate this is called a species-area curve []. As others have explained, you intensely survey a very small piece of land, and can statistically correlate that to how many species you'll find in a larger area.

      Some regions, like the tropical rainforest, are very high in species. You might have a certain type of plant that has five insect species that can only survive on that plant, and those insects might have little parasite wasps in them that specialize only in that insect, etc.

      That's why instinctions rates of species can be confusing. A few types of ecosystems are biodiversity hotspots []. You might find ten thousand distinct speies in a cubic meter. Whether these species are as "important" as a less-specialized species that is more widespread and adaptable is a matter for debate. But in terms of estimating the total number of species, the species area curve holds across different types of ecosystems. As you spread out from the small plot you surveyed in detail, you encounter new species and repeat species at a predictable rate, until you hit a new type of ecosystem.

      A really good article called How many species are there on Earth?" [] explains all of this in much greater and more accurate detail.

  • The difference between some species must be so small. They probably have a bunch of duplicates of species. I wonder what kind of scale do they use to seperate species out?
    • There are specific ways to differentiate species. Generally if two sets of organisms can interbreed and produce offspring that can breed themselves, they are considered of the same species.

      Example 1 : Cocker Spanial, golden retriever: can interbreed therefore same species.

      Example 2: Donkey, horse, makes mule but mule is sterile therefore donkey and horse are different species.

      • That simplistic definition falls flat on its face in the real world.

        A good example:

        Hermit and Townsend's warblers live at different altitudes in the PNW's Cascade range, with correspondingly different forest characteristics.

        There's a very small zone of overlap and within that zone they hybridize freely, giving rise to fertile offspring.

        Yet the zone of hyrbridization is, as best we can tell, fixed and there's no significant intermingling of genetic information between the vast majority of either species. Genetic drift alone is sufficient to guarantee that they'll continue to grow apart.

        Clearly these are two species. Almost as clearly, the speciation event was fairly recent.

        Spotted and Barred owls are similar. Barred owls gradually arrived in PNW coniferous forests, trailing industrial logging. The resulting clearcuts regenerated into the kind of thick cover preferred by these owls.

        Given the patchwork nature of clearcutting in these forests, it was inevitable that Spotted and Barred Owls would compete for territories in at least some areas containing mixed habitat, as the nesting territories for each species is large.

        And as it turns out, they do interbreed and produce fertile young occassionally (the kids that are produced are called "sparred" owls).

        But not frequently and despite the profound hopes of the timber industry, certainly not to any degree that would cause taxonomists to "lump" the two into a single species. Reproductive isolation has been maintained, to a large extent.

        Taxonomy isn't nearly as simple as most folks think.
  • They might not be around in 25 years.

    Any animal that competes with human beings, is a threat to human beings, or requires undisturbed access large pieces of land in areas close to human habitation should be done first. Elephants, tigers, grizzly bears, etc.

    Also, better look at any plant or animal that has a high degree of integration with their ecosphere (global warming will change their ecosphere faster than they can adapt).

    Oh, anything at either poles - human-based pollutants seem to gravitate to these areas.

    Better get everything in the ocean as well - over fishing and other human activities is disrupting the food chain.

    Any animal or plant that lives in any forest that is accessible by the logging companies probably should be classified early, as well.

    Finally, any animal that has "trophy" value or is poached for body parts to be made into aphrodisiacs won't be around for long.
    • Reminds me of the Simpsons Episode:

      "Hi I'm Troy McLure. You may remeber me from such films as 'Man vs. Nature: The Road to Victory!".

    • by jhaberman (246905) on Wednesday March 06, 2002 @03:37PM (#3120302)
      You know that any animal you can name "elephants, tigers, grizzly bears" are, of course, already classified. If people are hunting it (sport, poaching, etc.) it is, by definition, known to science. Exception being something hunted by/known only to very isolated native tribes.

      See... the problem is you are looking for things you know to exist, but you can't really identify them by sight. You have to analyze the specimine to determine if it has been classified already. Also, I have to believe that the VAST majority of those 100 Million species are very small... tiny insects through microscopic marine life and bacteria.

      I guess if we don't know a species even exists, we can't really determine if it's "at risk" yet. Granted, I think you are correct in saying we should start in the more fragile ecosystems.

      Bottom line, it is a daunting task!

  • Noah got a pair of every species into his arc. I'll ask him, that should cover mammals.

    For the sea, I suppose I could just use another scientific principle. Take a litre of sea water, identify the number of species in it, and multiply by the volume of the sea.

    For the air, I'll command a NASA spy sattelite and have it log images to a website, and have all of /. classify the images which contain birds.

    Hows that?
  • by kvn299 (472563) on Wednesday March 06, 2002 @02:57PM (#3120035)
    I'm sure there are dozens of unidentified species living in there...
  • by JJ (29711) on Wednesday March 06, 2002 @02:57PM (#3120038) Homepage Journal
    . . . the size that Noah's Ark should have been with 10 million pairs of creatures onboard.
    • Re:Imagine . . . (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Drachemorder (549870)
      I'm sure the parent comment was made in jest, but I recall reading an article a while back in which somebody did a feasibility study on Noah's Ark and determined that there would actually be room to spare on it.

      The trick is that you wouldn't have to worry about sea creatures or most insects, which could probably survive on their own, and there are really very few very large animals that would require lots of room.

      Regardless of whether or not one is of a religious persuasion or believes in the Ark story, it was an interesting read. *shrug*

      • Let's see ... there are about 12,000 species of bird and somewhat less than 10,000 species of mammal. 40 days and 40 nights ... they require room to live for that length of time, and a fair amount of food, too.

        That's a big ark, dude ...
        • by FFFish (7567)
          Donchaknow that ol' Noah just took tissue samples and merely cloned the original species? The guy was millenia before his time, woulda given Celerea a run for its money...
  • by OblongPlatypus (233746) on Wednesday March 06, 2002 @02:57PM (#3120042)
    I hate tracking down bugs.

    What do you mean, not those kind of bugs?
  • Species (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Drachemorder (549870) <{brandon} {at} {}> on Wednesday March 06, 2002 @02:59PM (#3120054) Homepage
    Part of the problem is determining exactly what constitutes a "species". Exactly where do the boundaries between different forms of life lie? That question is not nearly as easy to answer as it might appear at first glance, and it's easy to mislabel some creatures.

    If you were to see, for the first time, a chihuahua and a St. Bernard next to each other, you might be tempted to label them as separate species at first, when in reality they're just different breeds of the same species. It would take a lot of study to determine how closely they were actually related.

    If you draw the lines differently, you could probably get some extremely wild variations in the count for the number of species on Earth.

  • by Cutriss (262920) on Wednesday March 06, 2002 @02:59PM (#3120055) Homepage
    National Geographic News relates that scientists to date have identified less than 2 million distinct species with from 10 million to more than 100 million still undiscovered.

    I read the article and it doesn't seem to offer any evidence other than speculation as to where this number comes from. It seems kinda large to me. I know humans don't occupy *every* place on the planet, but there are very few areas within the top 10,000 feet of the Earth's crust that aren't accessible to humans already. Are they suggesting that life is blossoming in the mantle?

    How exactly did scientists come upon this number?
    • Your question is a good one, but I really don't think their estimate is far off. Note that what they're talking about here is identification and classification, theyre not saying there are between 10 and 100 million species which have never been laid eyes upon by a human being.

      I'll bet you that right this moment, an "undiscovered" species of insect is being squished by some annoyed guy in Africa.
    • I read the article and it doesn't seem to offer any evidence other than speculation as to where this number comes from. It seems kinda large to me. I know humans don't occupy *every* place on the planet, but there are very few areas within the top 10,000 feet of the Earth's crust that aren't accessible to humans already. Are they suggesting that life is blossoming in the mantle?

      If I understand correctly, most of the species are of things we see every day but don't bother classifying - insects, fungi, bacteria, and so forth. There's a lot of space down at the bottom of the pyramid, and with short generations and (for bacteria, at least) a high mutation rate, species differentiate a lot faster than at the top.

      If every given hundred-kilometre-radius area has a hundred local subspecies of bug or bacterium, it'll take quite a while and a lot of manpower to catalogue them all.

      How exactly did scientists come upon this number?

      My guess: By taking a really thorough survey of *all* life within test areas in various countries, and checking to see what fraction of the distinct species found were ones we knew about.

      There's quite a bit of uncertainty in the figures you'll arrive at from this, but you can certainly get a ballpark estimate. So far, the estimate is that we don't know about most species.
  • Taxonomy... (Score:5, Informative)

    by mkoz (323688) on Wednesday March 06, 2002 @02:59PM (#3120057)
    As someone who has described a species (and a genus while we are counting) and someone who uses taxonomic literature all too frequently I feel like I can say a few things:

    1. Taxonomy is really important. Most of biology rests on good taxonomy.
    2. Good taxonomic work requires massive amounts of work and training.
    3. Bad taxonomy is worse than no taxonomy.
    4. Taxonomic work is massively under funded and under appreciated... and it will continue to be so... as long as the tenure system requires lots of high profile papers (which taxonomy papers are not high profile and they take a long time to write).

    The more taxonomy is appreciated the better, and I really hope that they pull it off... But we have a better chance of microsoft embracing the open source software movement.

    • As a software engineer who does volunteer field biology work every fall ... I say hats off to you and all other taxonomists!

      Taxonomy is incredibly important. It is the foundation upon which biology rests.
  • Um, how will they know when they've found everything?
  • Impossible Target (Score:5, Interesting)

    by pmc (40532) on Wednesday March 06, 2002 @03:00PM (#3120065) Homepage
    Nice idea, but it is not going to happen. For example, take deep sea hydrothermal vents []. The life around these was completely unexpected (different species, but similar to other species else where). There is a high probability that other such unexpected islands of life remain to be discovered.

    Secondly, take places like Lake Vostok []. Possibly there is life in here, and if there is there is possibly life elsewhere entombed under a million years of ice.

    Added to this is there is a certain vagueness as to what a species actually is. I can't remember the details, but there is a species of bird (a gull I think) that is present round to world. As you go from east to west the individuals change slightly, but can still interbreed (which is, more or less, the definition of what a species is). Whoever, once you go round the world you get back to where you started, the individuals either side of the start line can no longer interbreed with those on the other side of the line. (I'd draw an ascii diagram but I can't really be bothered fighting the lameness filter). Are all these individuals one species or not? (A good analogy is a line of individuals - each one is within an inch in height of both neighbours (== can interbreed). When you form the line into a circle the two former end members are two feet apart in height (== can't interbreed)).

    Then you have just the sheer practical difficulty of getting to places where there might be life - Challenger Deep? The seabed under Challenger deep? Oil bearing shale 3 miles down? We know (from our sole visit to Challenger Deep) that there is some sort of life down there, but have no clue as to what species.

    A worthwhile undertaking, but doomed from the start - we can't, currently, get definite about giant squid, nevermind microscopic sea creatures.
    • Re:Impossible Target (Score:4, Informative)

      by dhogaza (64507) on Wednesday March 06, 2002 @04:05PM (#3120524) Homepage
      You're thinking of various large gulls in the genus Larus - Herring, Western, Glaucous-winged etc.

      One way taxonomists (in zoology at least) deal with this is by lumping the species into a container known as a "superspecies". Another way that taxonomists deal with the problem is to downgrade the species into subspecies lumped into a single species.

      There's no hard and fast rule to follow here, if there were taxonomists would have nothing to argue about.

      The gull situation you refer to is particularly complex.

      Why is the situation so messy? Evolution. These closely-related species are largely isolated reproductively and have evolved recognizable differences, though there's free hybridization where they meet. In some cases (Western X Glaucous-winged in the Seattle, Washington area, for instance) hybridization is so widespread that at some point I'd expect them to be "lumped" into a single species.

      Humans have a role here as gulls show up in large numbers in places where they may not have in the past (think about all those gulls you see around inland landfills). We may play a role in reducing the degree of reproductive isolation of some of these closely-related gulls and may impact their evolution, in other words.
      • You're thinking of various large gulls in the genus Larus - Herring, Western, Glaucous-winged etc.

        Thanks - it was starting to annoy me because I couldn't find it. If would have meant a trip to the loft (and I really don't want to do that).

    • Oh, it's much worse than you're describing. Take a beaker full of sea water or dirt from your backyard. How many species of microbes are present in that beaker that can't easily be cultured in the lab and hence have never been described? Now repeat the same exercise using the flora in your lower GI tract.

      I believe there have been some recent PCR-based surveys for DNA present in sea water that suggest that a whole bunch of microbes in perfectly accessible habitats have so far managed to slip under our taxonomic radar.
    • Ligers (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Knunov (158076)
      "As you go from east to west the individuals change slightly, but can still interbreed (which is, more or less, the definition of what a species is)."

      Not really. Ever hear of a liger []?

      It's a cross between a lion and a tiger. Two distinctly unique species can interbreed.

      Horse + burro = jackass.
      Severum (Heros Severus) + Red Devil (Amphilophus Labiatum) = Blood Parrot Fish.

      There are several other examples of different species interbreeding.

      Most commonly this happens with humans.

      Caucasians, Mongoloids and Negroids [] interbreed more prolifically than any other group of species.

      I know it isn't politically correct to say such things, but that's one of the main reasons I love science. It has no room nor desire for political correctness.

      And before you oversensitive liberals MOD me into oblivion, know this: I'M BLACK

      • by pmc (40532)
        Not really. Ever hear of a liger []?

        Yes - they are sterile. I could have given a more complete definition of species but the point is that (which seems to have passed you by completely) is that any definition can be answered with "Not really".

        Let's try

        1) Species are organisms that can interbreed with each other.

        Not really - what about Ligers.

        2) Species are organisms that interbreed with each other and produce viable offspring.

        No really - what about the gulls mentioned above - they can interbreed but don't.

        3) Species are organisms that can be made to interbreed with each other.

        Not really - by painting the gulls, sure, you can persuade them to interbreed. But there are similar examples with e.g. salamanders where we can't persuare them to interbreed, even though it looks like they should be able to.

        You can attack the definition from the bottom (genes) instead of phenotypes:

        4) Two animals are the same species if (in the wild) there is a significant gene flow between their two gene-pools.

        The trouble with this is that an animals gene-pool is defined in terms of its species. And, once that is sorted out, we can then talk anout significant. So chalk up another not really.

        I'll ignore the bit where you make a horse's arse of yourself about human speciation - others have dealt with it.

        I know it isn't politically correct to say such things, but that's one of the main reasons I love science. It has no room nor desire for political correctness.

        But this is a gem. Science is objective to a degree, but it is also a social structure. In the social structure policital correctness is a rife as anywhere else. Take, for example, physics. A hard science - as objective as it comes. Right? Now explain why Carlo Rubbia won a Nobel prize.

        To save you the time, Carlo Rubbia was the administrator of the CERN project that discovered the W and Z particles - his scientific contribution was smaller that the majority of other scientists involved. Now, this was a worthy project and probably deserved the prize. There were, however, about 400 people in the teams and, traditionally, the prize goes to =3 people. So they gave it to the administrator - it was, politically, the correct thing to do.
    • Does the term "entombed" apply when in fact life under a million years of ice is ALIVE.
  • Genetic Blueprints (Score:4, Interesting)

    by JJ (29711) on Wednesday March 06, 2002 @03:02PM (#3120080) Homepage Journal
    The article doesn't mention anything about taking genetic samples but it would not be a bad idea to store DNA samples of all living things. Of course, this would give a good way to do the taxonomy as well, since the diversion of the DNA can be traced backward.
  • by AJWM (19027) on Wednesday March 06, 2002 @03:02PM (#3120086) Homepage
    "Species" is one of those fuzzy terms that everyone thinks they know the meaning of, but on closer examination it's hard to pin down. Kind of like "teal" (is it blue? green? dark turquoise?) or "pr0n".

    The current usage of the term can denote two groups of genetically identical (well, allowing for normal variation) animals but that do not share overlapping habitat ranges as separate species. Given the opportunity, they could interbreed and produce fertile offspring (the "classic" distinction of a species -- which fails utterly for things that reproduce asexually and for morphologically distinct animals -- like lions and tigers -- that can interbreed and produce fertile offspring, but generally don't).

    Thus you get ecofreaks complaining about the imminent extinction of the left-handed mottled weed rat because the two fields where they live are about to be paved over, when in reality that critter is genetically identical to the right-footed fuzz-backed bush mouse and the big-eared worm-tailed ground squirrel that just happen to live in different areas and were originally described by different biologists.

    So, what's their definition of "species"?
    • One of the ant experts said something faimilar with his interesting comment on my message board recently:

      "Not to interject too much philosophy... ...but the term "species" has a lot of ambiguity to it. In some cases there are very clear differences between groups of ants. In these cases, most people would feel comfortable calling different groups "species". However, there are plenty of other groups that continuously grade into one another, especially across geographic space. For example, a group of ants in California may be black along the coast but gradually turns yellowish as we move inland and into the interior of the continent. In some cases it is almost arbitrary whether or not to divide continuous variation into different species or not. There are other instances where distinct groups of ants hybridize with each other, introducing more ambiguity into what we call "species". As ant taxonomy advances, it is also clear that some groups were named twice, and others named once but actually pertain to several distinct groups. There are still many messes that need to be worked out. As a consequence, I would not attach too much significance to the exact number of species. There is as much human whim in that number as there is real biology." --Myrmecos1 -- Source/Link []

    • Actually, most of the obvious errors of the sort you mention with your hypothetical rat species have been weeded out of modern taxonomies for mammals and birds, at least.

      Also ... the Endangered Species Act gives protection to identifiable populations, subspecies and species, not just species. Because of this your three hypothetical mammal populations are elgible for protection under the Act regardless of their taxonomic status.

      I bet you didn't know that, did you? :)

      This aspect of the Act is marvelously well-designed considering the mangling process bills go through as they wend their way through House and Senate.

      The reason why it is marvelously well-designed is because it is a result of specific recognition that taxonomy is an imprecise science.

      If only species were protected by the Act we'd be seeing taxonomists being sued over "lumping" and "splitting" decisions.

      As it stands now, minor shuffling by taxonomists doesn't cause a previously protected population to suddenly lose protection due to "lumping", or a previously unprotected population to suddenly get vaulted to protected status due to "splitting" at the species level.

      So taxonomists can go about their work quietly and privately largely without interference. They only have to worry about angering birders who gain or lose entries on their "life lists" when they shuffle things around!

    • The only explaination I've ever heard of in biology for how something is qualified as a 'species' is that it can't interbreed with individuals of another species and produce fertile offspring.

      Unfortunately, not only is there confusion at the species level, there's confusion at the genus level too...

      A kingsnake (genus Lampropeltis) can interbreed with a cornsnake (genus Elaphe) and produce fertile offspring (called jungle corns).

      If the line is blurred even at the genus level for known and common animals, then how can people expect to classify things at the species level for unknown or rare animals?
  • The ocean is a long, long ways from being completely explored. Especially the very deepest parts - in fact, everytime that they take a sub way down there, they find at least one new species. Every single trip! It's the place to be if you're a scientist and want to actually discover something new. Sure, the Rainforest has a ton of stuff yet, but mostly just tiny insects and such. That's not nearly as interesting as discovering a 10 pound fish that gives off a blue glow, or a bed of never before seen plant life that's able to sustain itself without photosynthasis.
  • by antdude (79039) on Wednesday March 06, 2002 @03:04PM (#3120098) Homepage Journal
    Yesterday, I found this out this one [] of my message board [] threads.

    Brief summary: "This is the latest figure reported at the American Museum of Natural History Social
    Insects Website ("AntBase"), up by almost 500 since the last update. It has been estimated that another 20,000 remain to be described and named." --Dr. Ant

    Wired News, CNN, and Netscape's News mentioned this Web site yesterday as well.

  • It is evident from the information that we have already, that all biological forms of life are descended from one form back in the dawn of time.

    If we ever get off the rock, it will be interesting to see if the forms of life out there all use the same coding in dna, etc. or are using other forms.

    In a similar vien, all, if not most of the computer languages out their are based in some way on English, etc. I wonder which progamming would look like if it was all based on japanese or chinese. how much would be similar, and how much would be profoundly different? It is not all mathematics, after all.

  • Not Like Chemistry (Score:3, Insightful)

    by wizarddc (105860) on Wednesday March 06, 2002 @03:11PM (#3120139) Homepage Journal
    This is not at all like the periodic table in chemistry. If you know anything about the periodic table, you can predict the existence of elements because of slots that a certain number of protrons and neutrons fill. Biology is much more complex and harder to predict.

    --avandesande []
  • by micromoog (206608) on Wednesday March 06, 2002 @03:13PM (#3120149)
    Likening this dearth of information to doing chemistry knowing only one third of the periodic table, biologist Terry Gosliner is involved . . .

    This is not a good analogy. Chemistry, like math or physics, is an exact science where elements are used as "building blocks" for other elements and compounds. Taxonomy is an inexact science, and the fact that a rare Jamaican fruit fly doesn't have a name yet will not affect other areas of science.

    More information is always better, but suggesting that this lack of information somehow cripples biologists is sensationalism.

  • Why can't scientists ever just admit when they don't know a figure, rather than give some ridiculous range.
    • > Why can't scientists ever just admit when they don't know a figure, rather than give some ridiculous range

      Or at least come up with a single number that sounds more authoritative like Spock would.

      "Hmm my two guess are 10 million and 100 million"
      "Captain, there are 55 million unique species on that planet."
  • Just wait 25 years...

    And at the rate we're going, the number of species on the planet will have dwindled to around 3 million or so by then. This will make the job much easier.
  • Keep in mind... tha vast, vast majority of those species are going to be beetles, followed by other insect and "bugs", followed by very, very tiny organisms.
  • by FleshMuppet (544521) on Wednesday March 06, 2002 @03:20PM (#3120198)

    In order to understand why these estimates are so large, you have to realize the incredible biodiversity of the plan and insect kingdoms. Plants make up to 22 percent [] of the total number of species, and insects pretty much account for the rest []. Mammals take up considerably less than 1% of that total.

    Many of these species have such high evolutionary rates that they can evolve very quickly and often fill extremely specialized roles in a niche environment. Given this high rate of evolution, the mind-bogelling estimates of the total number, and the intrusionary nature of detection techniques, isn't this goal a little too unrealistic? It would seem to me that by the time you finally have catalogued them 'all,' a good percentage will have become extinct and whole bunch of new players will have emerged. In addition, verifying the continued existance of these species whould be an enourmous job.

    • Actually, most of the species are bacteria and other Prokaryotes. However, since these do not reproduce sexually, and do swap DNA even across dramatically different types (Kingdoms according to some classifiers), the definition of "species" is quite fuzzy. Given the ability of bacteria to evolve in hours, I'd be quite happy if we just had one of each Family living in captivity -- if that isn't enough genetic variety, just let them evolve for a few weeks.
  • A link [] about []. CNN, Wired News, and Netscape's News mentioned about this Web site yesterday.

    Brief description from CNN article: "Whether you're looking for fire ants, carpenter ants or some tetramorium flavithorax, the first complete database of the world's 11,000 known ant species can help you out. Scientists say is a unique resource for scholars, ecologists or anyone interested in myrmecology -- the scientific study of ants."

  • So lets say I'm endomologist and I happen upon what I believe to be a new species of roach. How exactly does someone pin this as a brand-spankin-new species? I mean, is it possible that there are mistakes, meaning, someone accidentally claimed a new latin name for their discovery when one already existed?

    how would this database be indexed if someone did find what they think is a new species? would they enter keywords, which are highly subjective?

    someone mentioned a DNA snapshot, a gel image. that would be easier to index b/c it represents in GUID (global unique id... ;-). ...but the resolution of the gel sample wouldn't be high enough for the large number of species.

    perhaps in the process of compiling this database, the authors will inadvertently upset the taxonomy applecart.

    either way, this should be fairly exciting, but i don't want to look forward to being 55 years old and finally have the database on line! (it's hard enough waiting for warcraftIII)

  • ...have identified less than 2 million distinct species with from 10 million to more than 100 million still undiscovered. Likening this dearth of information to doing chemistry knowing only one third of the periodic table

    That's a bit of a stretch I think.

    How many of these species are "leaf nodes" on the evolutionary tree, with only minute differences between the specific species of that family/genus? Our progress in biology isn't *that* severely hampered by not having catalogued all two hundred thousand dung beetle species, each of which differ only in color and antenna length.

  • by xipho (193257) on Wednesday March 06, 2002 @03:30PM (#3120256)
    IAAT (I am a taxonomist). This is a major pipe dream (at least the do it in 25 years worth).

    In insect taxonomy if you are a highly trained (world class) you can describe around 50 species PER YEAR (at least doing an adequate job). The (small) family I work in has over 2000 undescribed species. There are fewer than 8 experts in the world on this group, only 2-4 are actually producing names actively, and these at rate of much fewer than 50/year. This is a relatively small family of Insects, there are many many larger ones with many many more undescribed species. You do the math.

    The biggest problems is finding funding to do this work. Though taxonomists are invaluable to almost all biological studies (if you can't name your study organisms correctly you can't repeat the science) they are among the least well funded. Those that are funded are primarily big mega projects (like this one) that don't understand the nuts and bolt (i.e. code for computer buffs)...they are the administrators that the BOFH hates. So grandiose plans are contrived with know research into how one actually goes about training or naming the species involved. I've seen this happen several times (in insects there are thousands of trapped insects waiting to be sorted and dished out to experts but there is no funding to train taxonomist to be able to do identifications at even rough levels (family/genus) that would allow managable units of specimens to be passed along to "alpha" taxonomists (those that name species.

    As for the molecular folks who say taxonomy is passay.. this is a joke. Before they (moleculoids) can even begin to sequence they have to have some level of taxonomic background in place in order to even select the individuals they will sequence.

    If you know anything about taxonomy you know that a major problem is dealing with the nomenclature (how are species given names). You basically have to reference everything that is done in the past to ensure that your not naming a species that is already named. Just figuring out what has been done in the past is very problematic. There is very little funding available to deal with these problems. There is also very little infrastrcutre available to deal with these (there are more and more databases avaialable...and this is good).

    THERE IS NO GLOBAL CLEARING HOUSE FOR SPECIES NAMES. Nobody has the time or resources to even complile a complete list of species that have already been named, let alone those to be named!!!

    The long and short of this $$$ folks give money to those doing the grunt work...the actuall taxonomists, not the databases/web sites etc. Give it to the amature collector who knows what they are doing.

    • IAAT (I am a taxonomist). This is a major pipe dream (at least the do it in 25 years worth).

      In insect taxonomy if you are a highly trained (world class) you can describe around 50 species PER YEAR (at least doing an adequate job). The (small) family I work in has over 2000 undescribed species. There are fewer than 8 experts in the world on this group, only 2-4 are actually producing names actively, and these at rate of much fewer than 50/year. This is a relatively small family of Insects, there are many many larger ones with many many more undescribed species. You do the math.

      Wow; I am *so glad* you responded to this thread, and I do also hope you respond to these questions. :-)

      I would really like to do the math, but I am worried that most of the estimates tossed around for the total number of species on the planet are, um, likely to be wrong. (There, I said it.)

      So, for starters, and since you are a trained taxonomist, what do you think is the fair ballpark number of species on the planet?

      OK, so I know that question is unfair. Somewhat more fair is: what is the current ratio of described to undescribed species in the family of insects you specialize in? Has that ratio changed in any predictable way? By that, I mean this: does every new collecting expedition that goes out into a fresh area come up with just about as many new possible species in your family as the old ones did? More? Fewer? What I'm looking for is the ability to make a statement like "If the number of undescribed species follows the same discovery curve as [your insect family here], then there are X species still to be discovered.

      That's the kind of statement I can really deal with.

  • Not suprising, with genetic drift and mutations life is constantly changing and adapting to a constantly changing environment. What makes a unique 'unit' of species? Usually some arbitrary human definition -" Distinguishing those that have feathers, and bite, And those that have whiskers, and scratch. " I can just imagine the typical enviromentalist 20 millions years ago at a table selling pasteries to raise funds to "Save the Dinosaurs!".

  • The question is, will Big Foot and the Lochness Monster be on that list?
  • by selectspec (74651) on Wednesday March 06, 2002 @03:39PM (#3120315)

    Slashdothropdis Lathargicus

    Large smelly mammal with unusual sense of humor, total lack of social skills, and incapable of proper spelling and grammar. Good with tools. Scavenger instincs. Enjoys free beer.

  • The xeno-biologists who have been gathering evidence might finally be heard and get Bigfoot (aka Sasquatch) classified. It's about time. Now, whether or not the Bigfoot-came-from-ufos group will get to amend the classification remains to be seen.

    I also hope that scientists come to my apartment and identify the millions of species that must be growing in my roommate's room. It hasn't been disturbed by mop, vaccuum, cleaning rag or other species harmful cleansers in at least 3 years. They are sure to find a good percentage of that unknown percentage of species.
  • Hacker, as a species, would disappear very soon, if RIAA/MPAA have their way with DMCA and all their laws on circumventing devices.

  • While the article mentions microbes, after looking at their site and seeing but one microbiologist on their advisory board of 66 members, I have a feeling the larger effort is going towards finding the multicellular critters. This is quite a shame, considering the amazing diversity and incredible importance of bacteria and archaea.

    I suppose this is only normal, as there are hundreds of species of bacteria in our gut alone, to say nothing of what's on and inside any other creature. And even though we're discovering microbes in places we never thought they'd be (deep in the earth at giga-Pascal pressures, deep in ice, at sulfur vents in the ocean, etc), we can only culture on a plate or in growth media less than 0.5% of what we see!

    So "Every Species"? Hardly. Just the cute and cuddly ones that look good on the cover of National Geographic. And maybe a few slimy ones to gross out the kids.

  • If ever in Tennessee/North Carolina, drop in to Cosby and give a day or two to help.

    The All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory of the Smokies! []
  • It is hoped new technology and new recruits to the field of taxonomy will make the timetable viable.
    This will also be a boon for new recruits in taxadermy.
  • However... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Tuxinatorium (463682)
    Practically all of the alleged undiscovered species are monocellular organisms and virii, plus a reletively small number of insect species, and very little of anything else. The microbes mutate so fast that it would be useless to try cataloging every strain.
  • I have always had questions about classifying animals into so many species. If you can classify certain bugs and birds so specifically based on their appearance, can you then do the same for humans? Would the birds and the bugs resent that as much as we would? If these scientists successfully classify every species, but leave Homo Sapiens intact, what does that say about the objectivity of science? But if they split humanity into many parts, they risk alienating everyone and dooming their work to obscurity.

    How does everyone else feel about the possible classification of humanity into separate species distinctions? I, personally, am against it, but are there any other arguments, for or against?
  • I'm waiting to get my project to catalog every functional program ever written by anyone additional funding.

    I expect there to be at least 35 million new species of "Hello World!" that have yet to be discovered.

  • One species, a-hah-ha-ha!
    Two species, a-hah-ha-ha!
    Three, three species!

Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed. -- Francis Bacon