Posted on behalf of Ed Yong.
How much would it cost to describe the entire animal kingdom? Well over US$200 billion, according to Fernando Carbayo and Antonio Marques from the University of Sao Paulo.
Based on a survey of 44 Brazilian taxonomists (representing 9% of the country’s total), the duo calculated the average cost of training, funding and equipping people in the field. This might seem like an unrepresentative sample, but Brazil contains 10% of the world’s animal species and the country’s taxonomists are among the world’s most prolific. Their salaries also come close to the global average for professors.
Carbayo and Marques found that the average researcher described 25 species in their career. With around 1.4 million known animals, and an estimated 5.4 million species to discover, the duo calculated that it would take US$263 billion to cover them all. Their figures are published in a letter in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution.
Not all species are equal. It costs three times as much to describe a new vertebrate than an insect, although there are almost 300 times more of the latter left to identify. “You can effectively consider the warm-blooded things as done,” says Alistair Dove, who studies fish parasites.
Carbayo and Marques’s estimate is far larger than the US$5 billion figure proposed by biologist E. O. Wilson in 2000. But Chris Lyal, from London’s Natural History Museum, thinks the new figure might be an overestimate. “Their argument only holds true if it’s business as usual,” he says.
For several years, taxonomists have been developing more efficient ways of cataloguing life’s richness. The Biodiversity Heritage Library has been digitising millions of pages of early literature that were previously only available to researchers through large institutions. Taxonomists around the world can now access these materials more quickly, allowing them to compare new specimens against old ones. The Barcode for Life project allows scientists to identify new species through genetic comparisons. And social networking tools like Scratchpads mean distant communities of scientists can now work together to describe new species. “No one of these things is a silver bullet but they all help to speed things up,” says Lyal.
Nor do taxonomists spend all their time on species descriptions. They also work out the evolutionary relationships between them, write field guides, and more. “The cost of training a taxonomist [is] a hard concept to translate into a per-species cost estimate,” Dove says. Most people in the field do a lot on the side, while a small group of “super taxonomists” efficiently contribute a lot of new species to the pool.
But taxonomists themselves are becoming an endangered species. The current crop would take around 360 years to fully catalogue the world’s animals and training new ones would cost even more money. Carbayo and Marques think that the field needs an image boost from scientific policy makers. “Biology students are attracted to areas they think are more likely to give them status, job and money. Taxonomy is not an area like that anymore,” they say.
It’s an expensive job but, according to Lyal, a necessary one. He says, “Species description is incredibly important. We’ve got to manage the world and you can’t manage anything unless you know what you’re managing.”
Image: Beetle collection / Retro traveller