Almost a decade ago, researchers at Yale University launched a global database called Map of Life to track biodiversity distributions across the planet. Now, the team added a new feature to the database that predicts where species currently unknown to scientists may be hiding, reports Elizabeth Pennisi for Science.
The interactive map identifies biodiversity hotspots organized by vertebrate groups: birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals. (Fish are not included in the map.) The team's work was published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution this week.
In 2018, ecologist Mario Moura of the Federal University of Paraíba in Brazil teamed up with Yale ecologist Walter Jetz, who spearheaded the initial creation of the Map of Life. The pair set out to identify where 85 percent of Earth's undiscovered species may be, Science reports. For two years, the team collected information about 32,000 vertebrate species. Data on population size, geographical range, historical discovery dates and other biological characteristics were used to create a computer model that estimated where undescribed species might exist today, reports Peter Dockrill for Science Alert.
The model found tropical environments in countries including Brazil, Indonesia, Madagascar, and Colombia harbor the most undiscovered species, Science Alert reports. The model also predicts that new species of amphibians and reptiles are the most undiscovered animals today, reports Science Alert. Smaller animals have limited ranges that may be inaccessible, making their detection more difficult. In contrast, larger animals that occupy greater geographic ranges are more likely to be discovered, the researchers explain in a statement.
"It is striking to see the importance of tropical forests as cradles of discoveries, reinforcing the urgent need to protect tropical forests and stop deforestation rates if we want a chance to truly discover our biodiversity," said Moura to Isaac Schultz for Gizmodo.
The map comes at a crucial time when Earth is facing a biodiversity crisis. In the Living Planet Index (LPI) constructed by the World Wildlife Fund and the Zoological Society of London to track biodiversity and species populations, it was reported that there was a 68 percent decrease in vertebrae species populations between 1970 and 2016. The report also noted a 94 percent decline in animal populations in the Americas' tropical subregions.
"At the current pace of global environmental change, there is no doubt that many species will go extinct before we have ever learned about their existence and had the chance to consider their fate," Jetz says in a statement. "I feel such ignorance is inexcusable, and we owe it to future generations to rapidly close these knowledge gaps."
The team is working on three other maps still in beta testing that estimate species richness and rarity, biodiversity facets, and discovery potential. The researchers note that the maps can be used as a conservation tool and used to prioritize investigation in areas that may be affected most by climate change, Science reports. The team also plans on expanding their map to cover plant, marine, and invertebrate species as well.
"We hope to motivate citizen scientists and biodiversity enthusiasts about the importance of species discovery and ignite discussions and agreements from those responsible for decision-making and conservation planning," Moura tells Gizmodo.