Since 2000, scientists have been working to identify every species occurring in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Just down the road from Dollywood, the researchers and volunteers have cataloged 12,000 species, 651 of them unknown to science. They expect to find 100,000 species in the park.
This week’s Ask a ScienceBlogger:
What’s the most underfunded scientific field that shouldn’t be underfunded?
Like John Wilkins, I can’t ignore the importance of research in systematics and biodiversity (a field once referred to as taxonomy).
The best estimates we have suggest that there are about 15 million species, although reasonable estimates go as much as 10 times that. These are estimates based on rates of new discoveries, and on intensive surveys of small areas – as small as a sample of beetles from a few trees. For most of these named species, the name is all we know about most of them. For mammals, we have a skull in a drawer, and hopefully a dried skin next to it. For insects it could be a single specimen on a pin.
We have names for only a tenth of what’s out there, and we know something about the behavior and habits of perhaps a tenth of that.
This would all be an interesting, but not urgent, if that undescribed diversity weren’t disappearing. The areas that have the most undescribed diversity are the ones that are often in the greatest danger. Projects like the All Species Inventory and the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventories are starts, but there needs to be funding to sustain the experts and to maintain the collections they rely on. Many of the museums at smaller universities are being closed to save costs, and the collections are being pared down and integrated into fewer and fewer large collections. That robs students of opportunities to learn about systematics hands on, and it means that there are fewer schools where trained systematists can work.