In 2012, a sneezing monkey, a spongy mushroom, and a blue tarantula became official earthly inhabitants alongside more than 15,000 other new discoveries. Some of these species are more than just wondrous creatures, their existence could have broad implications. A wild rice species discovered in the 1970s was hybridized, and increased the world’s rice production nearly fourfold. To this day, that rice provides food in places where it would otherwise be scarce. Every time we discover a new species, it could be a link to health, food, medicine: something that can help what ails us.
Over the years, scientist have come up with wildly varying estimates of how many species live on earth, ranging from 3 million to 100 million. In the summer of 2011, Camilo Mora, a biodiversity researcher at the Department of Geography at the University of Hawai‘i, Mānoa, in collaboration with Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, released a study in PLoS Biology saying the Earth is home to about 8.7 million species. It was the most precise calculation ever offered.
The number shook the science world, both because of how he arrived at it—using the hierarchical rankings of existing taxonomic data, Mora’s team searched for natural mathematical patterns, which, they found, underlie the planet’s biodiversity—and what it means. Since 1758, when humans first began to classify species, roughly 2 million species have been described; of these, only 1.2 million species have been entered into central databases and only 60,000 species have been thoroughly assessed.
Not everyone agrees with Mora’s numbers (he could be off by millions, some say; he only accounts for organisms with one or more complex cells, leaving out different types of microbes). We’re losing species, by some counts, at a rate of more than 25,000 a year, which is a lot faster than we are discovering them.
“How can you protect what you don’t know you have?” Mora asks. “The data are there to inform people that we cannot afford to let the world’s biodiversity slip. We’ll never know how an organism, once vanished, might have been able to improve our well-being, be it for future medicine, food, or as a past participant in the health of an ecosystem. With each disappearance, we lose a unique function for this earth.”
Mora’s passion for nature traces to the early 1990s, when as an army kid in Colombia, at age 17, he spent a miserable night in the jungle, alone on New Year’s Eve and ravaged by mosquitoes. Amid thousands of mysterious living things, he explains, he became “interested in knowing what nature hides from us,” he says. He began to wonder how many species there were, and where they are? Mora first became interested in ocean reefs, then crawled onshore to study global biodiversity on land. He ended up in Hawaii, and working on the study with Dalhousie University in 2011.
Studies show that ecosystems, which provide humans with vital benefits including clean air and water, are healthier and more effective when more species are present. When one species disappears, a lot can go wrong.
Mora works relentlessly to get this message across. Much of his current research seeks to document patterns of biodiversity changes relating to human pollution, climate change, and overconsumption. “This is not about us scientists having opinions, but about making science relevant to the way we live,” he says, emphatically. (Mora’s enthusiasm is infectious; as a final project, his 2011 lab grad students produced a series of whimsical multimedia clips about the ongoing loss of biodiversity—in one, students linked overconsumption and species extinctions by showing earth as a cookie jar. People traipse by, grabbing handfuls from the jar, until nothing is left.)
This coming year, Mora hopes to test patterns to calculate the number of species in a specific location, be it a farm in Hawaii or an icecap in the Arctic. Knowing what is in contained areas, he explains, is “a basic piece of information, and we don’t have it,” he says, still with surprise in his voice.
Mora believes that once you know about living things in your neighborhood, their protection becomes an ethical responsibility, and that a new species could be hiding in your very own backyard.