Some of the world’s strangest species could vanish before they’re discovered

Bill Laurance, James Cook University

Scientists have described around 1.5 million species on Earth – but how many are still out there to be discovered? This is one of the most heated debates in biology. Discounting microbes, plausible estimates range from about half a million to more than 50 million species of unknown animals, plants and fungi.

This biodiversity matters because it could be used to fight human diseases, produce new crops, and offer innovations to help solve the world’s problems.

Why is there so much uncertainty in the numbers? The biggest reason, I argue, is that a lot of biodiversity is surprisingly hard to find or identify. This has profound implications for nature conservation and for our understanding of life on Earth.

Hidden biodiversity

We find new species every day but the organisms that we’re now discovering are often more hidden and more difficult to catch than ever before.

Not surprisingly, the first species to be described scientifically were big and obvious. The earliest naturalists to visit Africa, for instance, could hardly fail to discover zebras, giraffes and elephants.

But recent discoveries are different. For instance, lizard species found today are generally smaller and more often nocturnal than other species of lizard. The tiniest of them, a thumbnail-sized chameleon from Madagascar, was discovered just a few years ago.

Three newly discovered species: (a) a snake-like amphibian from India; (b) the world’s tiniest lizard, and © the only lungless frog species.
B. Scheffers et al. (2014) Trends in Ecology & Evolution

Other unknown species are notoriously difficult to capture. For example, a biologist friend of mine was visiting his mother-in-law in north Queensland when her cat strolled in with an odd-looking animal in its mouth. He wrestled the cat’s dinner away and found that it was a mammal species never before seen in Australia called the prehensile-tailed rat.

Now known to be quite common in the Wet Tropics, this tree-dwelling rat almost never enters conventional wildlife traps. We can thank my mate’s mother-in-law’s cat for the discovery.

Other poorly explored places where new species wait to be discovered include the deep sea, soils and caves. After spending some 1,100 hours digging holes in the ground, biologists stumbled over the first species of Indian caecilian, a primitive, snake-like burrowing amphibian never before seen on the subcontinent.

On a far-flung beach in Alaska, a dead animal that washed ashore just last year turned out to be a completely new species of whale.

A frog species discovered in Borneo is the only frog in the world that completely lacks lungs. It lives in fast-flowing streams that are so oxygen-rich that it can breathe solely through its skin.

And a newly discovered spider in Morocco has evolved to move and escape predators by somersaulting over sand dunes.

The rainforest rooftop

High on the list of places to discover new species include rainforest canopies. In the early 1980s a Smithsonian Institution ecologist, Terry Erwin, used an insecticidal fog on several trees in the Panamanian rainforest and was stunned by his findings. Most of the insects that fell to the ground were entirely new species. Based on quick calculations he estimated that there could be 30 million species of insects residing in the canopies of the world’s rainforests.

Erwin’s conclusions, as it would be expressed today, went viral. In one fell swoop he had increased estimates of global biodiversity at least tenfold. Most biologists today consider his original estimate too high, however some believe he only overestimated a little.

Rainforest canopies are one of the world’s great biological frontiers.
William Laurance

Cryptic species

Beyond species that are difficult to find or catch, a lot of unknown biodiversity is staring us right in the face but we simply can’t see it. For these species, new discoveries are down to advances in molecular genetics. Around 60% of all new organisms described today are so-called “cryptic species” that are nearly indistinguishable from one another.

In recent years, for example, we’ve discovered that Africa has not just one species of elephant but two. Formerly considered different subspecies, genetic analyses reveal that they’re as dissimilar to one another as the Asian elephant is to the extinct woolly mammoth.

Genetic studies have also revealed hidden variation among Africa’s giraffes. Just last year, researchers revealed that what was once considered a single species of giraffe is actually four.

And in Costa Rica, one putative species of butterfly turned out to be at least ten.

Genetic studies have revealed that one apparent species of giraffe is actually four.
William Laurance

Molecular genetics is turning biology on its head in other ways. Organisms we used to think were only distantly related, such as antelopes, dolphins and whales, are practically cousins in evolutionary terms.

Epicentres of unknown species

One last reason why many species are yet to be discovered is that they only live in a small area of the world. Known as “restricted endemics”, these species are geographically concentrated in certain regions such as tropical mountains, islands, and climatically unusual environments.

Most of Earth’s restricted endemics reside in “biodiversity hotspots”, defined by having more than 1,500 locally endemic plant species and less than 30% of their original habitat remaining. Of 35 currently recognised hotspots, half are in the species-rich tropics with the remainder divided among Mediterranean, islands and other ecosystems.

The world’s 35 recognised biodiversity hotspots.
Conservation International

Today, the bulk of new species are being discovered in the biodiversity hotspots. The scary thing is that our recent analyses show that more than half of all hotspots have already lost over 90% of their intact habitat.

Further, most hotspots occur in poorer nations with rapidly-growing populations and escalating social and economic challenges, creating even greater pressures on their already beleaguered ecosystems and species.

Scary implications

Taken collectively, these studies suggest that there’s an enormous wealth of biodiversity on Earth left to discover and that much of it is in danger.

Further, our present knowledge is just scratching the surface. Evolution has had billions of years to create biologically active compounds that can combat human diseases, generate genetic diversity that could save our food crops from disastrous pathogens, and spawn ecological innovations that can inspire marvellous new inventions.

What a tragedy it would be to lose this biodiversity before we have ever had the chance to discover and learn from it.

A new species of Anglerfish discovered this year in the Gulf of Mexico. This bizarre fish has bioluminescent algae in the ‘fishing pole’ above its head to attract prey.
Theodore W. Pietsch, University of Washington

The Conversation

Bill Laurance, Distinguished Research Professor and Australian Laureate, James Cook University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


With a less confrontational approach to whaling, more whales could be saved

Steven Freeland, Western Sydney University

Whales had another big win last week – allegedly. The Australian-sponsored resolution adopted by the International Whaling Commission will, in theory, make it harder for nations such as Japan to award themselves special permits for “scientific” whaling.

But as pointed out in The Conversation at the time, the non-binding resolution is likely to have little material effect on whales themselves.

Australia’s delight at the new resolution echoes its response to the International Court of Justice’s 2014 ruling that Japan’s JARPA II whaling program was unlawful.

But since then it has been business as usual for Japan, which simply created a new and different research program – one that makes it very difficult for Australia or anyone else to take it to The Hague again. It is hard to see what these legal and diplomatic victories have achieved in a practical sense, beyond prompting Japan to entrench its resolve to continue with its whaling programs.

It is time for some new tactics. Legal and diplomatic skirmishes with Japan and other pro-whaling nations might feel like the right thing to do. But they deliver little benefit to the whales, and could potentially provoke pro-whaling nations into leaving the IWC altogether.

Longstanding impasse

Before setting out my views as to the way forward, I must state that, on a personal and moral basis, I am absolutely opposed to any whaling whatsoever. I would like to see the complete cessation of whaling by any country in the world.

Unfortunately, however, it does not appear that the events at the recent IWC meeting will change much in practical terms. To be sure, any reform of the IWC is welcome. However, the failure to achieve the required three-quarters majority for the establishment of a South Atlantic whale sanctuary, coupled with the non-binding character of such resolutions, means the IWC has once again proven itself incapable of achieving a strong consensus on contentious issues relating to the protection of whales.

Herein lies the problem. Although this might sound strange coming from a law professor, I believe that the formal legal system is not an effective way to resolve long-entrenched impasses in a way that best serves the interests of the whales themselves.

This is particularly true when the issue draws such emotional responses from all sides. Using the IWC as an ideological battleground does not get us very far in terms of protecting whales.

In its early years, the IWC was characterised as a “whalers’ club”, allocating quotas to member states at levels that significantly harmed whale numbers. Over the past 30-40 years, however, nations such as Australia, New Zealand and Britain have become fiercely anti-whaling, and the commercial whaling industry has met its demise.

As a result, the IWC has over time adopted a much stronger anti-whaling stance, putting it at odds with the whaling states (including Japan, Norway and Iceland) and causing considerable tensions within the IWC.

These tensions have been exacerbated by the fact that, even though the underlying sentiment of many member states has changed, the terms of the 70-year-old treaty have not. That makes it hard for the IWC to morph seamlessly from a resource-management body into a conservation forum.

The logical endpoint

The worst-case outcome would be if Japan (or any other whaling state) feels it is being pushed too far at IWC meetings, and decides to withdraw altogether, which nations can do with as little as six-months’ notice under Article XI of the Convention. Such a country would no longer be bound by any of the restrictions established under the treaty regime – including the moratorium on commercial whaling that has been in effect since the mid-1980s.

Breaking away from the IWC would undoubtedly bring with it significant political and diplomatic costs, making it perhaps unlikely that nations will seriously consider it for now. But if the adversarial tensions continue, pro-whaling states could eventually decide simply to leave the IWC process in order to pursue commercial whaling with little or no international controls. If this were to happen the IWC would have presided over an ecological catastrophe for whales.

Japan’s response to recent developments has shown that a complete cessation of whaling cannot be achieved, at least in the short term. The only rational and pragmatic response is therefore to ensure that as few whales as possible are taken.

I believe the only way for that to happen is for IWC members to agree a compromise based on widely accepted environmental principles such as sustainability. The sad fact for strong anti-whalers such as myself is that this may involve some whaling, albeit on a far more controlled basis than at present.

In this way, the dubious reliance on “scientific” purposes as a disguise for what many observers regard as commercial whaling would end, replaced by a credible system to which everyone has agreed.

It is important not to lose sight of the ultimate purpose here: to preserve whales and do everything possible to protect them. The current emotionally charged legal and diplomatic battles, no matter how worthy and principled, aren’t really in the best interests of these magnificent creatures. An international management regime based on cooperation and clear, objective principles offers a far more promising prospect for their future than the current stalemate.

The Conversation

Steven Freeland, Professor of International Law, Western Sydney University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.