It seems almost daily that we hear about yet another species in danger. If you are paying attention to the increasingly fever-pitched pleas from advocates, you know that nearly 30,000 species are going extinct every year.
Welcome to the Sixth Extinction, the fastest die off of species the Earth has ever seen. Scientists say that the biodiversity crisis is mostly due to the destruction of ecosystems, the overexploitation of species and natural resources, overpopulation, the spread of agriculture, and pollution.
And while this mass extinction continues to accelerate, so does our ability to measure and examine the natural world -- creating a seemingly ironic recent phenomenon: the golden age of species discovery.
Using tools like Google Earth and new techniques in molecular genetics, scientists have recorded almost 17,000 new species in 2006. This explosion of discovery is adding new names to growing "endangered" lists, creating new questions and new concerns. How many species have we lost without even know they existed? Should there be a worldwide race to find new species? Who decides what species to save?
In Finding New Species: The Golden Age of Discovery, Bruce Stutz explores the nature of these discoveries:
The new finds aren’t small cryptic oddities. The recent mammal discoveries range in size from a 3-gram shrew-tenrec to a 100-kilogram antelope. They include a hundred new bat species, a rodent species thought extinct for 11 million years, a pygmy deer from Bhutan, a macaque from the Himalayan foothills, a white titi monkey from Brazil, and a pygmy sloth from Panama. While most of the finds come from the world’s still underexplored tropical forests, discoveries have been made in mountains, deserts, and even in well-surveyed temperate regions.
Many of the new finds result from good old-fashioned fieldwork, especially from expeditions into regions previously inaccessible due to lack of roads or in some cases off limits due to war or politics. Google Earth has given scientists a way to scout terrain and cheaply reconnoiter habitats likely to produce new finds. Taxonomists at work in museums of natural history still find as yet unnamed specimens among the collections of preserved specimens.
Many of the discoveries result from new techniques in molecular genetics. These can show that what scientists thought to be a single widely distributed species is not one species at all, but rather a collection of small populations that look alike but are genetically and evolutionarily distinct. The very common dusky salamander, for instance, long thought to be a single population ranging throughout the U.S. Appalachian and Adirondack Mountains, from New York to Alabama, has now been found to made up of four separate species. While some have suggested that genetic “hair-splitting” has inflated the number of new species, recent studies have shown that “taxonomic inflation” is the exception, not the rule.
The new discoveries are all welcome, says Wheeler, but also worrisome. For as much as they expand our knowledge of the world’s ecosystems, they also reflect “our profound ignorance of many of the most species-rich taxa inhabiting our planet.”
The rate of discovery, in fact, may be telling us that estimates of the number of species still unknown — ranging from three to ten million to the tens of millions — may be far too low. Discoveries in hot springs or in deep ocean vents, for instance, hint at entirely new and unexplored ecosystems. Extinction rates may therefore also have been underestimated, meaning that many more species than previously thought have been lost without ever having been found.
The challenge now will be to recover before more are lost, the scientists told Stutz. But recovery is no small task when it implies halting or at very least slowing the Sixth Extinction. We have many problems to solve: pollution, irresponsible development, harmful farming practices and overconsumption.
To solve this, we will have to fully step up to become more mindful of how our actions impact the planet. We will have to reassess almost every aspect of our lives and rediscover what it means to co-exist with nature. As scary and heartbreaking as this issue is, I feel that it is also empowering and compelling. Now more than ever, we have the motivation to do what is right for our species and so many others. As we've argued here before, it is our moral imperative.
Image credit: Wildlife Conservation Society