Species Disappearing Faster Than They're Being Discovered

This tree shows how species are related, the estimated number in each group, and the percentage of those threatened. Illustration by Peter Grundy

An Antarctic expedition recently turned up four new octopuses, including the Megaleledone setebos (left)—and the first known sub-zero venoms, which the creatures use to kill their prey. In July scientists discovered 11 new insect species, not in some far-off pristine land but in well-trodden France, in Mercantour National Park.

These are just a few of the 18,000 or so species found each year (1.9 million have been described worldwide). In 2007, 75 percent of these were invertebrates, 11 percent vascular plants, and about 7 percent vertebrates.

Sadly, at the same time, extinction rates are accelerating, with possibly more than 26,000 species vanishing each year, the United Nations estimates. Pollution, climate change, development, and disease are largely to blame. The spread of a fungus that causes white-nose syndrome could wipe out the little brown myotis—once North America’s most common bat species—in the northeastern United States within two decades. And in Panama, chytrid fungus is killing off new amphibian species nearly as fast as they’re being discovered.

Drastic action is required to conserve biodiversity and prevent natural systems from collapsing, a 2010 UN report found. “We need a new vision for biological diversity for a healthy planet and a sustainable future for humankind,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon wrote. “To tackle the root causes of biodiversity loss, we must give it higher priority in all areas of decision making and in all economic sectors.”

From the
November-December issue of Audubon.

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