8.7 Million Species Run Spaceship Earth and Our Life Support System

Charonia tritonis Credit: David Burdick

We share the planet with 8.7 million species. We’re unconcerned about the ongoing loss of 200 species a day since we fail to realize they are our life support system. And we don’t know how many or which species are needed to keep things running. There is metaphor in the article to make that clearer I hope. We are not even close to coming to grips with this issue.  — Stephen

“If the decline in species around us is not significant then I ask what is?”

By Stephen Leahy

UXBRIDGE, Canada, Aug 23, 2011 (IPS)

 The life support system that generates the planet’s air, water, and food is powered by 8.7 million living species according to the newest and best estimate. We know next to nothing about 99 percent of those unique species – except that lots of them are going extinct.

“It is like a complicated engine where we only know about the major pieces. If we lose one or some of the small hidden pieces that play a critical role the engine might stop working,” said Camilo Mora of the University of Hawaii and Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada.

Many species may vanish before we even know of their existence, of their unique niche and function in ecosystems,” Mora told IPS.

Until now there wasn’t even a decent guesstimate about how many species exist currently: three million? 100 million? Now a new validated analytical technique has pined down the big number to 8.7 million species (give or take 1.3 million).

The analysis published Tuesday in the journal ‘PLoS Biology’ estimated there are 6.5 million species found on land and 2.2 million – about 25 percent of the total – dwelling in the ocean depths.

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“Not knowing the answer to this fundamental question really highlights our ignorance about life on this planet,” said Boris Worm of Dalhousie University, co-author of the study along with Mora.

“We’re so fixated on the human enterprise we don’t recognise nature’s enterprise… the 8.7 million species that run the planet and provide the air we breathe, the water we drink and the soil we grow our crops in,” Worm told IPS. “If the decline in species around us is not significant then I ask what is? This is all we have on this planet, the only planet that holds life.”

Every time we walk outside there are likely living organisms literally under our feet in the soil unknown to science, Worm says.

In fact we still don’t know much about the majority of species. The Red List issued by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) assesses just 59,508 species, of which 19,625 are classified as threatened. This means the IUCN Red List, the most sophisticated ongoing study of its kind, monitors less than one per cent of world species, said Worm. “Humanity has committed itself to saving species from extinction, but until now we have had little real idea of even how many there are.”

To arrive at their precise estimate Mora, Worm and colleagues refined the estimated species total to 8.7 million by identifying numerical patterns within the taxonomic classification system (which groups forms of life in a pyramid-like hierarchy). Analysing the taxonomic clustering of the 1.2 million species today in the ‘Catalogue of Life’ and the ‘World Register of Marine Species’, the researchers discovered reliable numerical relationships between the more complete higher taxonomic levels and the species level.

Furthermore, their study says a staggering 86 percent of all species on land and 91 percent of those in the seas have yet to be discovered, described and catalogued.

The number of unknown species in the world’s oceans was closer to 99 percent just 10 years ago when the ‘Census of Marine Life’ began. The 10-year long census that ended last year was an unrivalled scientific effort involving hundreds of researchers around the world to better understand the oceans.

Yet, although 91 percent of ocean species are yet to be discovered, there is little funding to continue the census’ work or replace it, says Mora. “We have the technology, the resources and the people… we’re only lacking the funding.”

“It is a remarkable testament to humanity’s narcissism that we know the number of books in the U.S. Library of Congress on 1 February 2011 was 22,194,656, but cannot tell you – to within an order-of- magnitude – how many distinct species of plants and animals we share our world with,” Lord Robert May of Oxford University, past-president of the UK’s Royal Society, writes in commentary in the same issue of ‘PLoS Biology’.

The accelerating loss of species, before we can even count them properly, is an issue of concern to every person on the planet says Mora. “When we all recognise this as a problem we can potentially arrive at a solution.”

First published as 8.7 Million Species Run Spaceship Earth – IPS ipsnews.net.

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