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How The Endless Discovery Of New Species Offers Humility For Humans

Marcus Nield | 21.07.2015 08:54 | Ecology | Education | Health

As humanity’s quest for knowledge deepens into the cosmos, perhaps we should bow modestly to the ungraspable complexity of life here on Earth.

Last month researchers from the California Academy of Science uncovered a treasure trove of biodiversity, comprising more than a hundred new species of animals unknown to science, from dazzling iridescent sea slugs to rainbow tunicates seemingly mimicking human brains. The findings emerged from an underwater expedition to an unexplored region off the Philippine coast, 500ft below sea-level. A more subtle implication rumbles beneath the surface: The ceaseless influx of species to our catalogue of lifeforms suggests we’re far from understanding the entirety of nature’s web, despite our common hubris that we possess dominion over all creatures great and small.

Novel species flood our museums at an unstoppable rate. 2014 alone saw the discovery of 18,000 unidentified organisms, including a frog that gives birth to live tadpoles and a wasp that feeds dead spiders to her young while using dead ants to seal the front door of her nest.

With around 1.2 million species described, the question that has baffled naturalists for centuries is: How much is left? Dr Boris Worm and colleagues are thought to have achieved the most credible estimation to date, which points to the existence of around 8.7 million species – in other words, a pretty hefty gap in our knowledge.

Such estimations, however, are tagged to high degrees of uncertainty. In particular, the realm of the very small bewilders even our most precise scientific instruments, to which we humans can only doff our cap at the sheer complexity. One spoonful of average soil will contain around 10,000 species of bacteria and plenty will be foreign to science.

One may be tempted to assume that those species left concealed are simply unreachable, hiding in ocean depths or inaccessible groundwater. Though true for some, potential discoveries are right under our noses. When mycologist Bryn Dentinger bought a product labeled ‘30g of dried porcini’ from a supermarket in London, he decided to investigate and uncovered not one, but three new species of fungi.

Bestowed with 21st century technology, it may sometimes feel we’re on the precipice of becoming godlike creatures, sculpting the world in our own image, but evolution has been spinning ‘miracles’ for us in the form of medicine that we couldn’t dream of pioneering in laboratories. Coral reefs remain an untapped biochemical larder of life-savings drugs, as many stationary creatures produce obscure chemical defenses to protect themselves from enemies. Certain types of sponges, for example, can synthesize anti-cancer properties now licensed to treat leukemia. Only a fraction of these underwater pharmacies have been harnessed.

When highlighting our humbling unawareness of life on Earth, Lord (Robert) May commented in the journal, PLoS Biology: “It is a testament to humanity’s narcissism that we know the number of books in the US Library of Congress on 1 February 2011 was 22,194,656, but cannot tell you – within an order of magnitude – how many distinct species of plants and animals we share our world with.”

While the Voyager satellite exits our solar system and Curiosity roams the surface of Mars, whether it is an untrodden path, a rock unturned, or an ocean depth unreachable, the treasure hunt of Earth continues to tantalize us far beyond the conquest of our microscopes.

Marcus Nield
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