by Mario Moura
Eighty percent of the species on the planet still have no name
Imagine 80% of the people on the planet didn’t have a name. We would probably have great communication difficulties, a simple dialogue about relatives could be a real problem: “Whose son are you?” “I am the son of a … nephew of the … brother of … Yes, I can’t say that!”
Did you see the drama Because that is exactly what happens to our biodiversity. Although it is estimated that there are around 10 million species on the planet, less than 20% of them have proper names, meaning they have been officially described by science. Without a formal description of these as yet unknown species, the possible ecological values, ecosystem services, and the economic importance they may have for health, food production, pollination, or as invasive pests or disease carriers, remain unknown to us. In a study published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, we mapped the regions of the planet where most of the unknown species live.
But if they are unknown, how was it possible to map them? There are characteristics of the species that can facilitate or hinder their discovery in nature. Some species were named more than 200 years ago, such as the rhea, a large bird that is common in much of South America, others are true miniatures and occur in remote places, such as the pingo de ouro frog described at the end April. Height, geographic range, and other characteristics can be merged to create mathematical models that indicate the percentage of known species in different regions of the planet.
Knowing the percentage of known species for a given region, as well as the number of known species, a simple rule of three can be used to find the total number of expected species. The next step is even easier, just subtract the number of known species from this estimated total. The remaining amount is exactly the estimated number of unknown species.
The Unknown Life Map shows that 10% of the planet’s surface could be home to nearly 70% of all as yet unknown species. About half of future new species discoveries are expected to take place in tropical rainforests such as the Atlantic rainforest and the Amazon. Second and third on this list, along with 12% of future discoveries, are arid tropical forests like the caatinga and tropical savannah regions like the cerrado.
People familiar with Brazilian biomes will have already noticed that the Amazon, Atlantic Forest, Cerrado, and Caatinga cover most of Brazil. What is the consequence of this biomatic geography? Our naturally beautiful tropical country tops the list of nations with the most future discoveries and is home to about 10% of all new species on the planet. This finding strengthens Brazil’s position as a megadiverse country and draws attention to the importance of biodiversity research in the country.
The creation of the discovery map is only the first step to get to know this nameless biodiversity. Traditional communities and non-governmental organizations can use the results of this research to add ecological importance to regions with high potential for the discovery of new species. At the government level, the amount of unknown species can be incorporated into conservation area strategies. There is also the possibility that these outcomes will guide global policy in the post-2020 period. At the end of 2021, COP15 – the meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity – will take place, at which the international biodiversity targets for 2030 will be set.
The task ahead is as big as Brazil’s biodiversity. In order to avoid the extinction of as yet unknown species, it is imperative to put in place efficient mechanisms to protect forests, including eliminating illegal logging. Investing in research that accelerates the description of new species is also required. In the post-pandemic world approaching a green economy, Brazil will play a prominent role if it can remove its biodiversity from anonymity.
Mario Moura is a biologist, professor at the Federal University of Paraíba and works with biodiversity, ecology and nature conservation.
Subscribe to Serrapilheira’s newsletter for more news from the Institute and the Ciência Fundamental blog. Do you have a proposal for an agenda? This is how you can work together.