Thursday, 5 April 2012

Mission critical: Species explorers propose steps to map biosphere

Scientists say worldwide collections, existing experts and technology make charting 10 million species in less than 50 years achievable; a necessary step to sustain planet's biodiversity

TEMPE, Ariz. – An ambitious goal to describe 10 million species in less than 50 years is achievable and necessary to sustain Earth's biodiversity, according to an international group of 39 scientists, scholars and engineers who provided a detailed plan, including measures to build public support, in the March 30 issue of the journal Systematics and Biodiversity.

"Earth's biosphere has proven to be a vast frontier that, even after centuries of exploration, remains largely uncharted," wrote the authors, who include biodiversity crusaders Edward O. Wilson and Peter H. Raven.

"Exploring the biosphere is much like exploring the universe," the authors argued. "The more we learn, the more complex and surprising the biosphere and its story turn out to be."

By most estimates, about 2 million of Earth's species are known, with about 18,000 new plants and animals discovered each year. Experts estimate at least 10 million species on Earth are yet to be discoveed or accurately classified. These species are tiny, large, buried, hidden in collections, or in plain sight.

Raven, President Emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden, has said that roughly 30 percent of Earth's species will become extinct this century. He and the other co-authors pointed out: "For the first time in human history, the rate of species extinction may exceed that of species discovery."

"The time is ripe for a comprehensive mission to explore and document Earth's species. Charting the biosphere is enormously complex, yet necessary expertise can be found through partnerships with engineers, information scientists, sociologists, ecologists, climate scientists, conservation biologists, industrial project managers and taxon specialists, from agrostologists to zoophytologists," noted the authors of "Mapping the biosphere; exploring species to understand the origin, organization and sustainability of biodiversity."

"From the 18th century until our appreciation for the pace of biodiversity loss, it seemed that we could make do with fractional knowledge of Earth's species. It is now clear that this was a tragic miscalculation," said Quentin Wheeler, the lead author. Wheeler is an entomologist and director of the International Institute for Species Exploration at Arizona State University.

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