Last updated April 27, 2018 at 4:36 pm
Our terrible record on extinctions is one thing, but it turns out we don’t even have a good idea what we could be losing.
We live in a mega-diverse region of the world, teeming with a vast array of life forms. And yet Australia has one of the highest extinction rates on the planet due to a lethal mix of invasive species, habitat destruction and climate change.
A less obvious but equally important threat to our biodiversity is simply not knowing what’s out there, a problem addressed by a new 10-year plan produced by the Australian Academy of Science which aims to discover our unknown species before they disappear.
“We are facing an extinction crisis, with an estimated extinction rate of around 1000 times the background level and this is likely to accelerate,” Dr Kevin Thiele a plant taxonomist from the University of Western Australia who is leading the project, told journalists at an Australian Science Media Centre briefing this week.
“One of our fears is that many many organisms will go extinct before we have even had the chance to know that they’re there.”
The enormity of the task is daunting.
The plan’s authors believe that only about 30 per cent of the estimated 600,000 species in Australia have been named and described.
“With 400,000 species still to discover we estimate that it will take around 400 years of business-as-usual to even get close to having a full documentation of Australia’s biodiversity,” said Dr Thiele.
The academy hopes to accelerate the process of species identification at least tenfold in order to describe our hidden biodiversity within a generation.
The consequences of not knowing which plants, animals and fungi share Australia with us is not just that we can’t makes plans to conserve them; it also has implications for many facets of society including health (some unknown species could cause disease while others may contain compounds that cure disease), agriculture, biosecurity and the economy (through for example lost opportunities that undiscovered organisms might present).
But one of the biggest issues for the plan is the continuing decline in the number of taxonomists, the scientists charged with finding and describing all these new species.
Funding in freefall
Sir David Attenborough wrote the foreword to the decadal plan with the warning that: “Our taxonomic capacity is not adequate for the magnitude of the task, … [with] serious consequences for the future of life on Earth.”
Dr Thiele agrees. “With the current number of taxonomists in Australia and NZ we simply can’t do it. We need reinvestment in good people and new technologies that can handle the task.”
Marine taxonomist Dr Claudia Arango, from the Queensland Museum and a member of the Academy’s biodiversity working group, believes the declining number of taxonomists has a lot to do with a lack of career options.
“For years now we have been seeing a decline in funding for taxonomy as a science and in the number of taxonomists,” she told the AusSMC.
“Nearly half of all taxonomists are on short term contracts and around 25 per cent are not even paid for the work that they do.”
As Sir David puts it, “at the very time that many species are under greatest threat, funding and other resources allocated to the task of discovering, naming and documenting nature are declining”.