Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Green Bottle Blue Tarantula

(skydie/Shutterstock)

Species Disappearing Faster Than We Can Count

• July 17, 2012 • 4:00 AM

(skydie/Shutterstock)

We are 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.

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.

Cmilo Mora

Camilo Mora

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.

Sophia V. Schweitzer
Sophia V. Schweitzer is based in Hawai‘i and writes about environmental issues, green energy, and sustainability trends. See more of her work at sophiavschweitzer.com

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


October 20 • 4:00 AM

Coming Soon: The Anatomy of Ignorance


October 17 • 4:00 PM

What All Military Families Need to Know About High-Cost Lenders

Lessons from over a year on the beat.


October 17 • 2:00 PM

The Majority of Languages Do Not Have Gendered Pronouns

A world without “he.” Or “she.”


October 17 • 11:01 AM

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.


October 17 • 10:00 AM

Can Science Fiction Spur Science Innovation?

Without proper funding, the answer might not even matter.


October 17 • 8:00 AM

Seattle, the Incredible Shrinking City

Seattle is leading the way in the micro-housing movement as an affordable alternative to high-cost city living.


October 17 • 6:00 AM

‘Voodoo Death’ and How the Mind Harms the Body

Can an intense belief that you’re about to die actually kill you? Researchers are learning more about “voodoo death” and how it isn’t limited to superstitious, foreign cultures.


October 17 • 4:00 AM

That Arts Degree Is Paying Off

A survey of people who have earned degrees in the arts find they are doing relatively well, although their education didn’t provide much guidance on managing a career.


October 16 • 4:00 PM

How (Some) Economists Are Like Doomsday Cult Members

Cognitive dissonance and clinging to paradigms even in the face of accumulated anomalous facts.


October 16 • 2:00 PM

The Latest—and Most Mysterious—Player in the Nasty Battle Over Net Neutrality

As the FCC considers how to regulate Internet providers, the telecom industry’s stealth campaign for hearts and minds encompasses everything from art installations to LOLcats.


October 16 • 12:00 PM

How Many Ads Is Too Many Ads?

The conundrum of online video advertising.


October 16 • 11:00 AM

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.


October 16 • 10:00 AM

The False Promises of Higher Education

Danielle Henderson spent six years and $60,000 on college and beyond. The effects of that education? Not as advertised.


October 16 • 8:00 AM

Faster Justice, Closer to Home: The Power of Community Courts

Community courts across the country are fighting judicial backlog and lowering re-arrest rates.


October 16 • 6:00 AM

Killing Your Husband to Save Yourself

Without proper legal instruments, women with abusive partners are often forced to make a difficult choice: kill or be killed.


October 16 • 4:00 AM

Personality Traits Linked to Specific Diseases

New research finds neurotic people are more likely to suffer a serious health problem.


October 16 • 2:00 AM

Comparing Apples to the Big Apple: Yes, Washington, D.C., Is More Expensive Than New York City

Why shouldn’t distant locales tied to jobs in the urban core count in a housing expenditure study?


October 15 • 4:00 PM

Why Asian American Parents Are the Least Likely to Spank Their Kids

Highly educated, middle-class parents are less likely to use corporal punishment to discipline their children than less-educated, working-class, and poor parents.


October 15 • 2:00 PM

The Federal Government’s New Doctor Payments Website Is Worthy of a Recall

Charles Ornstein takes a test drive using the federal government’s new website for drug and device payments and finds it virtually unusable.


Follow us


Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don't always take alerts seriously.

Brain’s Reward Center Does More Than Manage Rewards

Nucleus accumbens tracks many different connections in the world, a new rat study suggests.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.