How Do We Save Never-Seen-Before Animals From Climate Change?

It's up to us to save them.
Brad Bergan
A 'roma earless dragon', in Australia.A. O'Grady / CC-BY

Climate change continues to threaten the habitats of species around the world, like the Polar Bear and coral reefs. But what about life we haven't seen yet?

A team of researchers presented a "return-on-investment" method of optimizing global efforts to identify and save new species before the changing environment wipes them from the face of the Earth, according to a new study published in the journal PLoS Biology.

Scientists rush to investigate a backlog of unknown species possibly threatened by climate change

In case you missed it, human industry has drastically changed the planetary atmosphere of Earth, and threatened global biodiversity, but this imminent loss could be even greater than scientists previously thought. Simply put, we don't know how many undocumented species are in danger. Before we can find ways of preserving a species, we have to find it, and identify it in taxonomic and scientific terms. Not knowing where to start, it becomes difficult to decide how scientists and taxonomists should best allocate their time and resources.

The new study outlines a way of deciding which groups require taxonomic documentation to support conservation efforts. It compares the human cost of identifying and classifying a group of some species with the probability of discovering an erstwhile-undiscovered species endangered by the shifting environment. The research team's method was tested on a highly diverse group of Australian snakes and lizards. Of 870 total reptile species considered, roughly one-third weren't properly classified, with 24 species lacking the level of categorization needed to enable meaningful conservation.

Saving unknown species from climate change could advance human science

This is significant because there is a global backlog of species without adequate description among most groups of organisms, mostly because of finite resources to execute some of the most intimidating taxonomic projects ever. The new study offers a novel framework for taxonomists and wildlife managers, with which they can optimize the prioritization of species in need of rapid taxonomic categorization and conservation. "We can't put effort into conservation of a species if we don't know it exists," said Jane Melville, an author of the study who also works at Museums Victoria, in an embargoed press release shared with IE. "Taxonomy allows us to identify these species and put a name to them so we can act before they are lost."

"Describing these as new species will allow conservation assessments to be undertaken to ensure they can be protected," added Melville. Reassessing the value of how we prioritize unprotected species when we don't know what we're missing is profoundly helpful. Beyond the obvious value of saving as many forms of life on Earth as possible from the mess humans have made, we also lose the possibilities of scientific knowledge that might come from more fully studying the biosphere of our planet, which was already changing and evolving with every passing year. Perhaps one day, data collected from as-yet-unknown species we helped narrowly avert extinction will lead to major advances in medicine, applied robotics, or even behavioral psychology. One never knows what nature has in store, and we never will, if or when it's lost forever.


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