Discovering Species

A katydid in Atewa, Ghana.  © Piotr Naskrecki
A katydid in Atewa, Ghana. 
© Piotr Naskrecki
Why new species discoveries are important

While most people know about the plight of mountain gorillas or the giant pandas’ struggle to survive, few have heard of the demise of the Antioch dune katydid or the extinction of the Naivasha Lampeye fish – species that were discovered too late to be saved. 

The very first step in conservation of species is the knowledge of their existence. Unknown thousands of species may have gone extinct before we even had a chance to give them proper scientific names.

For example, Centinela Ridge in Ecuador was a site of extraordinary floral diversity, where botanists discovered 90 unique, previously unnamed species of plants. Before they had a chance to properly collect and describe them, the ridge was cleared for agricultural use, wiping every species out.

At CI, we vow not to let this happen again.

Naming a species helps people identify with nature and foster interest in conservation. Once we know the species’ name and biology, we begin to care about it, and often want to help to protect it.

There are other, more utilitarian reasons for finding new species as well. The millions of species on Earth provide a multitude of free but valuable services for humans, including clean air and fresh water, new and refreshed soils and nutrients, pollination of flowering plants, and cleanup through scavenging and predation. Forests of trees take up much of the carbon humans produce, helping to buffer many of the effects of global climate change.

Each organism is also a unique repository of genetic codes and biochemical reactions, a potential source of life-saving drugs and new technologies. Within these species discoveries we may find bio-control agents that can help reduce or eliminate the use of harmful pesticides or discover new crops and other sources of food.

Species new to science often also help us better understand the history of life on Earth, filling in the gaps on the tree of life and improving our understanding of the evolutionary processes that created it.

Accordingly, CI and its Rapid Assessment Program (RAP) lead the effort to find those yet undescribed species, give them a name, monitor them and, if necessary, protect them.

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