New technologies help. Genetic barcoding offers the potential to identify animal species quickly for US$1 per sample from a small, but unique, DNA sequence. Barcoding for plants is slightly more difficult. For the great majority of unknown species in animal taxa with few taxonomic specialists, this will surely become the predominant method of discovering new species. It raises the controversial idea that many species may become known by a number derived from barcoding and not—or not only—from conventional descriptions. The potential to find new species and untangle clusters of cryptic species is also being realized. Less appreciated is that cost-effective barcoding by batches of species is now possible. Powerful new statistical methods estimate how many species may be present in an area and how these overlap with other samples from increasing sampling efforts. Combined with batch barcoding, there is the promise of rigorous estimates of what fractions of undescribed species are present in poorly sampled areas—the most direct way of estimating how many species there are.
This paragraph is from a new paper just published in Science in which an international teams claims that new tools to collect and share information could help stem the loss of the world's threatened species. The study reviewed recent studies in conservation science, looking at rates of species extinction, distribution and protection to determine where there were crucial gaps in knowledge, where threats to species are expanding and how best to tailor protection efforts to be successful.
By combining studies of the fossil record and of molecular analyses, they found the current rate of extinction - driven primarily by human activity - was roughly 1,000 times higher than the natural, background extinction rate - an alarming number that is likely to grow.
The authors also state that online databases, smart phone apps, crowd sourcing and new hardware are making it easier to collect data on species. If those could be combined with data on land-use change and the species observations of millions of amateur citizen scientists, they are increasingly allowing closer monitoring of the planet's biodiversity and threats to it. I couldn't agree more with them on that. Actually we need to support the expansion of all these technologies, and resources that allows us to develop even more powerful technologies for the future.
Projects that allow the general public to collaborate with scientists are becoming important sources of knowledge. Personally, I find this to be one of the most exciting developments in recent years and I am quite happy that I have the chance to help developing these interactions.
There are still enormous gaps in knowledge about how many species there are, where they live and their risks of extinction. Only about 13% of the world's land area and roughly two percent of its ocean area are currently under any sort of legal protection which often doesn't mean anything is really protected. And for aquatic species, whose threats often come from activities taking place on land far from where they live, land use management may prove just as important as protecting their habitat.
A very interesting meta-data study which I highly recommend for a read through on the weekend. Even more so since DNA Barcoding found it's way into it.