Saturday, June 21, 2008

Mind-blowing Numbers of Species

Greg Laden reports on a talk by Scott Lanyon, director of the Bell Museum of Natural History, at the Evolution 2008 conference at the University of Minnesota. Lanyon was giving an update on what has changed in evolutionary biology in the recent years. One area of change is our knowledge of how many species exist on the planet:

With respect to 'speciation' ... the diversification of forms, the diversity of life, the disparity produced by evolutionary process ... again, the same theme. Scott pointed out that we know of approximately 1.7 million species, but estimates suggest there may exist somewhere between 10 and 100 million species. Go back twenty years or so and you would have seen field biologists starting to confront this reality, especially in certain habitats, almost with a sense of disbelief. I remember hearing from a colleague just back from visiting an Amazonian research site ... a fogging sample was taken from a large area of rainforest canopy in a previously uninvestigated area to see what percentage of the insect species (which would fall out of the canopy because of the "fog" ....) would be new species. Five or ten percent would be really cool.

So they fogged the canopy, about a thousand species were represented in what came out of the canopy, and the researchers did not recognize any of them. Probably a few had been described before, but if so, not many. Totally blew their minds. And I'm not exaggerating by more than one order of magnitude (hey, it was a long time ago).

Pretty amazing.

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