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how much do we really know about biodiversity that's a really open-ended question it's like a question on a final exam and a school kids nightmare list in alphabetical order the things that mankind does not know hmmm but for our very real question there are people who are trying to bring a scientific angle to answering this mystery of what we do not know about biodiversity how can we estimate what we don't know how many unknowns are still out there what is there left to discover so the question is what is the species richness of the planet that's really the problem that people are trying to address when they're asked how many species are there on earth and how many of them have you named it boils down to this question of what happens if we go out to any given environment and look around how many of the things that we discover there could we actually put a name to so that we could go back and talk to people about it and say we've discovered 600 species of insects 800 species of flowering plants etc etc etc and they make a list of those names it's been said lots of times that attempts to record and understand biodiversity go back actually i would say myself to the start of human language because humans who are grunting around to each other back then had to communicate watch out man that thing elite us or that thing is good to eat we need to make those distinctions that's pretty basic but also essential taxonomy that's knowing something about your environment that's knowing some of the biodiversity right there so the first words probably expressed meanings along those lines the impetus for developing a language was probably not going to get any stronger than describing the biodiversity of whatever was chasing you through the forest or don't eat the green ones that's taxonomy that's knowing biodiversity the written records of describing biodiversity with Plato a Greek who lived 428 350 years before the current era Plato tried to deal with and describe the complexity that you see in the natural world by coming up with a concept called essentialism essentialism was the idea that species and forms in nature were less than perfect expressions of some ideal form there was a design for every single type of thing and each of these things had deep essences some mysterious property that allowed them to be what they were not a very scientific idea but it was a definite expression a gain of okay that's why there are types of animals that's why there are snails and sea urchins and fish Plato had a very clever and ultimately famous student named Aristotle who's generally felt to be the originator of the study of biology he wrote very precise works aimed at the study of animals the historia anime liam is among these it had several different parts dealing with the philosophy of why there are different essences and different things out there why they could or could not change from one thing to another Aristotle's ideas about animals were arranged on what became known as the latter of creation or the latter of nature the Scala natcher I Scala means ladder and Natura is of nature so this ladder was a system that Aristotle set up to allow him to communicate about the diversity of life on earth but there was no change over time things could not evolve from one thing into another they were pearls on a string just touching but not changing the Middle Ages are known as dark times when people were dealing with horrible stuff going on but in reality in between Wars and disease the most learned people of the time were busy writing books sometimes listing things that they knew about nature these were called bestiaries and were driven by the need of religious leaders to help godley designs and moral essence to their congregations for example particularly slow-moving organisms were lessons in laziness or industrious organisms were lessons in yeah you got to get out there and do your thing so go pollinate those flowers be a bee you know build a dam and be like the beaver bestiaries are important sometimes accurate depictions of things like hippos and rhinoceroses but reality was no barrier to these earlier authors you also had unicorns and sea serpents to round out the stories it wasn't really until a few hundred years ago that people started trying to figure out the science of these things our old friend Linnaeus for example really got down to the business of designing a system of consistently naming and describing things so what's different today we have a variety of technologies that speed up the process of determining what biodiversity is out there for example we have remotely operated submarines that go deep into the ocean big expeditions that discover new forms and molecular techniques that look just for different kinds of DNA even when the whole organism hasn't even been found yet all kinds of interesting ways of going out and trying to find things out about biodiversity ways of trying to assess the total number of organisms out there even as recently as 2010 researchers interested in figuring out how many species existed on earth used all the specimens and information they were gathering they looked at published literature talk to different experts and they discovered that the best guess is so far were between three million and one hundred million species on earth and that's a pretty broad range but in a paper published by Camilo Mora and colleagues in 2011 a series of mathematical models were developed to estimate the total number of species on earth the models were based on the rates at which species were being discovered in different groups of organisms and how they were arranged in taxonomic categories from phylum down to species Mora's group estimated that there are about 8.7 million species but there's an error margin on that so it could be anywhere from about 8.1 or 8.2 to almost 9 million overall still a broad range but at least it narrowed it down we currently have about 1.2 million species named and described so with Maura's estimate we're looking at a whopping 80 to 90 percent of what we think is out there as still waiting to be discovered even after 250 years of work on the problem we now have an estimate of the scale of what we don't know and that's a big part of the problem figured out we know a lot more about some environments than others the number of species that we know from a relatively remote piece of rainforest is probably going to be a lot lower than and say a desert or an area that's easy to get to where it's relatively easy to see all of the things that are there another example we've only explored about 5% of the ocean bottom most of that's really dark and the deepest bits are pretty hard to get to it's not easy to document life in the deep sea it sounds weird to say it but in some ways the more we know the less we know because the more we know about how to sample DNA the more types of organisms we can find and say a vial of sea water or a handful of soil just by sampling the DNA and separating out all of the different types of DNA that are there so with the sheer size of that task at hand is it even possible to make proper decisions about how to preserve biodiversity it might seem hopeless why do we bother to do this well ultimately there's as many good reasons to do it as there are species on earth we need to know what's there in order to know what to save even if we only know ten percent that's still 10 percent more than we knew at the beginning right and that percentage is growing slowly but surely and each new species is something new something crucial about life's diversity plus going back to my opening reference to a nightmare of a final exam question if you're going to use what we know now to make predictive models about what we don't know then the more you know the more accurate the prediction is going to be I think it's kind of like being a hockey coach if you know the names of only ten percent of your players how effective a coach are you going to be how are you going to yell instructions to those guys out there on the ice how are you going to control the pace of the game and communicate strategies or even know who's in the penalty box to understand the game you've got to know all the players all their positions and how good they are in short as much as possible about them similarly to understand biodiversity and healthy ecosystems we need to know as many of the biodiversity players as possible and what they do clearly there's a lot of work left to do and there are not that many professional system Attis it's why we need the help of many different technologies and approaches and we also need the help of interested people who are not scientists anyone can help we need more people citizen scientists going out and exploring and discovering and communicating their findings to scientists this is what humans have been doing since the dawn of time when we were pushed to understand and communicate about biodiversity in the environments around us we're still driven to discover and talk about biodiversity because the need has never been more urgent for our survival