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Study aims to protect species before they secretly vanish

Many plants and animals that are in need of conservation are still undiscovered or lumped in with similar species. In a study published by PLOS, experts have developed a “return-on-investment” approach to best direct efforts to identify unknown species before they are lost. 

Humans have negatively impacted global biodiversity through many direct and indirect stressors including pollution, overexploitation, and habitat destruction.

The results of the new study suggest that, due to the unknown number of undocumented species, the human impact on biodiversity may be even greater than what is realized.

In order to protect and preserve plants or animals, the organisms must first be identified and described by specialized scientists called taxonomists. However, with so many groups at risk, it is not simple to determine where taxonomists should focus their limited time and resources.

Led by Dr. Jane Melville of Museums Victoria, the researchers devised a method to determine which groups need taxonomic documentation to support conservation efforts. Their technique compares the human effort and cost of identifying and classifying a species with the likelihood of finding a previously unknown species that is at risk. 

The team applied the return-on-investment method to a highly diverse group of Australian lizards and snakes. Out of the 870 reptile species they analyzed, about one third were poorly classified, and 24 needed protection.

Across the world, there is a significant backlog of species awaiting description, and this is largely due to the lack of resources to undertake taxonomic projects. 

The current study provides a framework, which can be applied to almost any group, for taxonomists and wildlife managers to prioritize the organisms that are most in need of immediate taxonomic documentation. 

The researchers hope their approach will help to save more at-risk species before they silently go extinct.

“We can’t put effort into conservation of a species if we don’t know it exists,” said Dr. Melville. “Taxonomy allows us to identify these species and put a name to them so we can act before they are lost. Describing these as new species will allow conservation assessments to be undertaken to ensure they can be protected.”

The study is published in the journal PLOS Biology.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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