This week, it’s been hard to miss the new paper, “How many species are there on Earth and in the Ocean?” published by Mora et al. in the August 2011 issue of the journal PLOS Biology. There have been commentaries or news articles printed in the New York Times, The Economist, The Guardian, Damian Carrington’s Guardian Blog, National Geographic, Yahoo News, AlterNet, MSNBC, Reuters, UNEP, NewsDaily and Ed Yong has posted a commentary on his Google+ page. Furthermore, some well respected scientists who study biological diversity have joined the debate too: Jonathan Eisen has devoted two blog posts to the paper (one about the actual paper in PLOS Biology and another on the National Geographic commentary) and there is a commentary from Robert May in PLOS Biology about the study and its significance. Since there is ample information on the study elsewhere, let me communicate a brief summary of the study and some of my feelings about the paper.
It’s quite embarrassing that we have really no clue how much biological diversity is found on this planet. Adding insult to injury is the fact that we have no concept of the current magnitude of the loss of diversity due to human induced mass extinctions. This paper seeks to predict total global biological diversity by documenting current taxonomic numbers and extrapolating consistent patterns to estimate the number of species that have yet to be identified.
The methods of the authors essentially consisted of three parts. First, the authors compiled a list of approximately 1.2 million species pulled from numerous biological databases. Second, they surveyed a little over 500 taxonomists who were asked to identify the validity of current scientific names and comment on the intensity of current taxonomic efforts to describe new species. Third, the authors analyzed this data to find the estimated global numbers of biological taxa for each phylum.
The authors show a predictable pattern in the classification of species (at the phylum, class, order, family, and genus level) at least consistently for animals. By evaluating these patterns using regression, the authors validated this by closely examining 18 taxonomic groups that we think we understand their total biological diversity. By doing this, the authors come up with a total estimate of 7.7 million species of animals (mostly insects), close to 300,000 species of plants, more than 600,000 species of fungi, and a total estimate of roughly 9 million eukaryotes on Earth. The authors estimate that 86% of species on Earth and 91% of species in the oceans still have not been formally described. Previous estimates of species diversity have been wide: anywhere between 3 million to a 100 million species.
This paper is a novel and worthwhile attempt to determine the total amount of species diversity on this planet. Despite this, I think – and the authors have their own reservations – that there are some serious problems with some of their calculations.
One problem is that the study is based mainly on using animals, and vertebrates for that matter – which are the best described of any phylum, as the baseline for measuring the completeness of species diversity. I would argue that plants and fungi, and obviously bacteria, archaea, and “the protists” are clearly not well known enough to extrapolate any serious estimate species numbers especially when considering vertebrate animals as a baseline and whose numbers are largely skewed.
Another problem is in our collective definition of species, as well as taxonomic subjectivity of the categorization of other taxonomic hierarchies, which are based on the on the homology of shared characters and, I would argue, are largely incomparable outside of each phylum. For example, what one taxonomist calls an order in one grouping may not be equivalent to what another taxonomist calls a completely different order in another completely different grouping.
I should point out that the authors don’t ignore these caveats, but they still exist in their study. In any event, this paper is important because it adds to the dialogue concerning species diversity, the need to estimate, inventory and preserve the massive amount of diversity we share on the planet.