Looking for New Life Forms? Follow This Map

A new map suggests where undiscovered life awaits.
Brad Bergan

Years ago a comprehensive "Map of Life" was unveiled to the world, illustrating the distribution of known species of life throughout the planet. But Yale researchers just launched an even more ambitious effort — one possibly even more crucial: Building a map of life's shadow, where life has yet to be discovered, according to a new study published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

Map of undiscovered life will help search for new species on Earth

This latest project is more than science for Walter Jetz — professor of evolutionary biology and ecology at Yale who led the Map of Life efforts. To him, it's a moral imperative capable of supporting biodiversity and preservation globally.

"At the current pace of global environmental change, there is no doubt that many species will go extinct before we have ever learned about their existence and had the chance to consider their fate," said Jetz, according to an embargoed release shared with IE. "I feel such ignorance is inexcusable, and we owe it to future generations to rapidly close these knowledge gaps."

This latest study shifts the emphasis of scientific interest from conventional questions like "How many undiscovered species exist?" to more concrete ones like "Where and what?"

"Known species are the 'working units' in many conservation approaches, thus unknown species are usually left out of conservation planning, management, and decision-making," said Mario Moura, a former postdoctoral associate in Jetz's lab who is also a professor at the Federal University of Paraiba. "Finding the missing pieces of the Earth's biodiversity puzzle is therefore crucial to improve biodiversity conservation worldwide."

Small and elusive species likely remain undiscovered

Roughly 10% to 20% of species on the planet have received formal scientific description, according to conservative estimates. To help discover missing species, Jetz and Moura built a set of comprehensive data — which involved the geographical range, location, historical dates-of-discovery, and other miscellaneous biological and environmental characteristics of roughly 32,000 known terrestrial vertebrates.

The team's analysis enabled the extrapolation of where and what kinds of unknown species of the four main vertebrate groups that most likely remain undiscovered. Analyzing 11 key factors, the team capably predicted locations where undiscovered species might exist.

For example, large animals with wide geographical ranges in populated areas have probably already been spotted. This means we likely won't find new large species in the future. But smaller animals living within more inaccessible regions and with limited range of motion have probably still eluded modern scientific discovery.

"The chances of being discovered and described early are not equal among species," said Moura, in the embargoed release. For example, the large Australian bird called emu was found in 1790 not long after taxonomic descriptions of species began. But the small, elusive species of frog called Brachycephalus guarani wasn't found in Brazil until 2012, which means there are likely more amphibians awaiting discovery.

The more you know, the more you can conserve

Sadly, the chances of discovering new species vary substantially in different places around the world. Brazil, Madagascar, Indonesia, and Colombia possess the greatest likelihood of being habitats for new and undiscovered species — representing a quarter of all possible discoveries.

"We tend to discover the 'obvious' first and the 'obscure' later," explained Moura in the release. "We need more funding for taxonomists to find the remaining undiscovered species."

In the rush of seemingly-endless discoveries about water on Mars, and potential life in the underground oceans of exoplanets, it's easy to feel like Earth holds no more awe in store for taxonomists. Not so, according to the Yale research team, who aim to expand this map of undiscovered life to marine, plant, and invertebrate species in the coming years. Because the more you know about life on Earth, the more grounded efforts to preserve it can be.

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