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Map of undiscovered life will guide the search for new species

In a new study from Yale University, experts have created a framework for locating undiscovered life on Earth. The study comes less than a decade after the team developed the “Map of Life,” a global database that marks the distribution of known species across the planet.

The research was focused on pinpointing where life is yet to be discovered. Study co-author Professor Walter Jetz hopes that the new effort is a moral imperative that can help support biodiversity discovery and preservation around the world.

“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,” said Professor Jetz. 

“I feel such ignorance is inexcusable, and we owe it to future generations to rapidly close these knowledge gaps.”

Study lead author Mario Moura said the study shifts the focus from questions like “How many undiscovered species exist?” to more applied ones such as “Where and what?”

“Known species are the ‘working units’ in many conservation approaches, thus unknown species are usually left out of conservation planning, management, and decision-making,” said Moura. “Finding the missing pieces of the Earth’s biodiversity puzzle is therefore crucial to improve biodiversity conservation worldwide.”

It is estimated that only 10 to 20 percent of species on Earth have been formally described. In an effort to help find some of these missing species, the researchers compiled data that included the location, geographical range, historical discovery dates, and other environmental and biological characteristics of about 32,000 known terrestrial vertebrates. 

By analyzing this data, the experts were able to predict what kinds of unknown species of the four main vertebrate groups are most likely yet be identified and where they may be found. 

“The chances of being discovered and described early are not equal among species,” said Moura. For example, large emus were discovered in Australia in 1790 soon after taxonomic descriptions of species began. On the other hand, the small, elusive frog species Brachycephalus guarani was not discovered in Brazil until 2012, which indicates that there are similar amphibians that have not yet been found.

According to the map of undiscovered life, the odds of discovering new species vary widely across the globe. The results suggest that Brazil, Indonesia, Madagascar, and Colombia hold the greatest opportunities for identifying new species overall.

The study is published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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