About 500,000 Australian species go undiscovered – and scientists are on a 25-year mission to complete the work
Here are two quiz questions for you. How many species of animals, plants, fungi, fish, insects and other organisms live in Australia? And how many of them have been discovered and named?
At first, the answer is we don’t really know. But the best guess from taxonomists – the scientists who discover, name, classify and document species – is that Australia’s lands, rivers, coasts and oceans are likely home to over 700,000 distinct species.
On the second, taxonomists estimate nearly 200,000 species have been scientifically named ever since Europeans began to explore, collect and classify Australia’s remarkable flora and fauna.
Taken together, these estimates are worrying. After over 300 years effort, scientists have documented less than a third Australian species. The remaining 70% are unknown, and mostly invisible, to science.
Taxonomists in Australia name an average 1,000 new species every year. At this rate, it will take at least 400 years to complete even a first inventory of Australian biodiversity.
This ignorance is a serious threat to Australia’s environment. And a one-of-a-kind report published today shows that this is also a huge missed economic opportunity. That’s why today, Australian taxonomists are calling on governments, industry and the community to support an important mission: to discover and document all Australian species within 25 years.
Australia: a biodiversity hotspot
Biologically, Australia is one of the richest and most diverse nations on the planet – between 7% and 10% of all species on Earth happen here. It is also one of the highest species discovery rates. But our understanding of biodiversity is still very, very incomplete.
Of course, First Nations peoples discovered, named and classified many species in their knowledge systems long before the arrival of Europeans. But we don’t yet have a ready-made way to compare their knowledge with Western taxonomy.
Finding new species in Australia isn’t difficult – there are almost certainly unnamed species of insects, spiders, mites, and fungi in your garden. Whenever you take a vacation in the bush, you will come across hundreds of unknown species. The problem is to recognize the species as new and to find the time and resources to deal with them all.
Taxonomists describe and name new species only after very careful due diligence. Each specimen should be compared to all known named species and close relatives to make sure it is a new species. This often involves detailed microscopic studies and gene sequencing.
More field work is often required to collect specimens and study other species. Specimens in museums and herbaria around the world sometimes need to be checked. After a lot of work, new species are described in scientific papers for others to evaluate and examine.
So why are so many species still unknown? One of the reasons is the lack of taxonomists trained to the required level. Another is that technologies that can speed up the task dramatically have only been developed in the last decade. And both of these, of course, require appropriate levels of funding.
Of course, some groups of organisms are better known than others. In general, notable species – mammals, birds, plants, butterflies and others – are fairly well documented. Most of the less visible groups – many insects, fungi, mites, spiders and marine invertebrates – remain poorly understood. But even inconspicuous species are important.
Mushrooms, for example, are essential for maintaining our natural ecosystems and our agriculture. They fertilize the soil, control pests, break down litter and recycle nutrients. Without mushrooms, the world would literally stop. Again, over 90% of Australian mushrooms are considered unknown.
Beware of lack of knowledge
So why is all of this important?
First, Australia’s biodiversity is critically endangered and increasingly threatened. To manage and conserve our living organisms, we must first discover and name them.
At present, it is likely that many undocumented species are disappearing, invisibly, before we know they exist. Or, perhaps worse, they will be discovered and named from dead specimens in our museums long after they became extinct in the wild.
Second, there are many undiscovered species that are essential to maintaining a sustainable environment for all of us. Others could become pests and threats in the future; most species are rarely noticed until something goes wrong. Knowing so little about them is a huge risk.
Third, huge benefits are to be derived from these invisible species, once they are known and documented. A report published todayby Deloitte Access Economics, commissioned by Taxonomy Australia, estimates a benefit to the national economy between A $ 3.7 billion and A $ 28.9 billion if all remaining Australian species are documented.
The benefits will be greatest in the areas of biosecurity, medicine, conservation and agriculture. The report reveals that every dollar invested in the discovery of all remaining Australian species will bring up to $ 35 in economic benefits. Such a cost-benefit analysis has never been carried out in Australia.
The investment would cover, among other things, research infrastructure, an expanded grant program, a national effort to collect specimens of all species and new facilities for gene sequencing.
Australian taxonomists – in museums, herbaria, universities, at CSIRO and in
ministries – have spent the last few years planning an ambitious mission to discover and document all of the Australian species left in a generation.
So, is this ambitious goal achievable, even imaginable? Fortunately, yes.
This will involve deploying new and emerging technologies, in particular high throughput robotic DNA sequencing, artificial intelligence and high-performance computing. This will dramatically speed up the process, from collecting specimens to naming new species, while ensuring rigor and care in the science.
A national meeting of Australian taxonomists, comprising the young, early career researchers needed to complete the mission, was held last year. The meeting confirmed that with the right technologies and sharper, brighter minds trained for the task, Australia’s species discovery rate could be increased 16-fold, reducing 400 years of effort to 25 years.
With the right people, the right technologies and the right investments, we could discover any Australian species. By 2050, Australia could be the first biologically rich nation in the world to have documented all of our species, for the direct benefit of this and future generations.
/ Courtesy of Conversation. This material is from the original organization and may be ad hoc in nature, edited for clarity, style and length.