Do you know how many million animal species need to be discovered on earth? No idea? Around1.4million animal species has been identified and almost millions remain to be discovered.
Now, imagine how much it would cost to identify entire animal species on earth. Don’t know?
A pair of Brazilian scientists has crunched the numbers and come up with an answer: $263 billion.
That’s way more than the $5 billion that famed Harvard University ant biologist Edward O. Wilson estimated back in 2000—and that was for every species on Earth, not just animals. But even $263 billion would be a small price to pay to understand the creatures that enable such essentials as agriculture, fisheries, new drugs, and energy sources, says ornithologist Joel Cracraft of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. “Literally, the world economy runs on biodiversity,” he says. “People don’t understand really, deeply how much we depend on biodiversity.”
Most biologists agree that with extinction rates soaring and climate change looming, the effort to document the planet’s biodiversity—or biota—is urgent, especially considering the essential role these life forms play in crop pollination, clean air, and other aspects of human well-being. “We are losing species by extinction faster than we are describing new species” according to some estimates, says biologist Antonio Marques, who coauthored the new paper with Fernando Carbayo, both at of the University of São Paulo in Brazil. “We have to know the biota to preserve and conserve the biota,” he says.
Marques, a jellyfish specialist, and Carbayo, who studies flatworms, surveyed 44 Brazilian taxonomists (about 9% of the country’s working taxonomists) to determine their rate of describing new species and the cost of their education, lifetime salaries, laboratory equipment, and expeditions.
They argue that these data can be reasonably extrapolated worldwide because Brazil is home to 1/10th of the world’s known animal species and has a very active community of taxonomists who earn close to the global average. They found that on average, each taxonomist describes just shy of 25 new species during his or her career, at a cost of $97,000 a year.
Not all species are created equal, however. Marques and Carbayo found that all told, it costs about $122,000 to describe a new Brazilian vertebrate, such as a bird—twice the price of a new noninsect invertebrate, such as a worm. New insects are a bargain at $39,000. And working in different habitats entails different costs. Marques and Carbayo applied those numbers to an estimated 5.4 million yet-to-be-discovered animal species to get their $263 billion price tag, which was published online last month in Trends in Ecology and Evolution. Of course, that money wouldn’t have to be paid all at once.