Posts Tagged ‘Earth’

Number of species on the planet is an unknown unknown – so what is the importance of biodiversity?

August 24, 2011
PLoS Biology_front page_2010-03-01

Image by Bettaman via Flickr

The importance of biodiversity and the loss of species as humans take over their habitats is one of the favourite themes of the environmental movement. But I have yet to see a clear exposition as to why the natural loss of species unable to cope with change is something to be opposed. The diversity of life is certainly one of the most striking aspects of our planet and it is not hard to accept that knowing how many species inhabit Earth is a fundamental question in science. In fact, without knowing this number any comments – let alone conclusions – about the danger of loss of species or the importance of bio-diversity to humanity can only be speculation.

The problem is not only that we have not identified all the eukaryote species in existence (and about 1.3 million have been classified and named) but we have no idea whether the number in existence is to be measured in millions or in hundreds of millions. About 15,000 new species are identified and catalogued each year. If  Bacteria and Archaea are added to eukaryotes, the total number of species could be in the billions.

A new paper in PLoS Biology using a relatively new methodology predicts the total number of species that exist. They claim that “the higher taxonomic classification of species (i.e., the assignment of species to phylum, class, order, family, and genus) follows a consistent and predictable pattern from which the total number of species in a taxonomic group can be estimated”. Using this approach they conclude that “there are ~8.7 million (±1.3 million SE) eukaryotic species globally, of which ~2.2 million (±0.18 million SE) are marine. …. (and) some 86% of existing species on Earth and 91% of species in the ocean still await description”.

Mora C, Tittensor DP, Adl S, Simpson AGB, Worm B (2011) How Many Species Are There on Earth and in the Ocean? PLoS Biol 9(8): e1001127. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001127 

But the paper is already facing objections. The methodology – some claim – actually only estmates human activity in classifying species and not the species themselves. It does seem like an extrapolation from “what has been found” to predict “all that can possibly be found” and the argument is somewhat circular and not fully convincing. It brings to mind the quotation from Donald Rumsfeld which he was castigated for but which I am finding increasingly profound:

There are known knowns; there are things we know we know.
We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

I think we are still in the state of not knowing what we do not know.

NY Times

“It’s astounding that we don’t know the most basic thing about life,” said Boris Worm, a marine biologist at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. On Tuesday, Dr. Worm, Dr. Mora and their colleagues presented the latest estimate of how many species there are, based on a new method they have developed. They estimate there are 8.7 million species on the planet, plus or minus 1.3 million.

In 1833, a British entomologist named John Obadiah Westwood made the earliest known estimate of global biodiversity by guessing how many insect species there are. He estimated how many species of insects lived on each plant species in England, and then extrapolated that figure across the whole planet. “If we say 400,000, we shall, perhaps, not be very wide of the truth,” he wrote. Today, scientists know the Westwood figure is far too low. They’ve already found more than a million insect species, and their discovery rate shows no signs of slowing down.

In 1988, Robert May, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Oxford, observed that the diversity of land animals increases as they get smaller. He reasoned that we probably have found most of the species of big animals, like mammals and birds, so he used their diversity to calculate the diversity of smaller animals. He ended up with an estimate 10 to 50 million species of land animals.

For the new estimate, the scientists came up with a method of their own, based on how taxonomists classify species. Each species belongs to a larger group called a genus, which belongs to a larger group called a family, and so on. .. In 2002, researchers at the University of Rome published a paper in which they used these higher groups to estimate the diversity of plants around Italy. There were fewer higher-level groups than lower ones at each site, like the layers of a pyramid. The scientists could estimate how many species there were at each site, much as it’s possible to estimate how big the bottom layer of a pyramid based on the rest of it. . … The scientists built a taxonomic pyramid to estimate the total number of species in well-studied groups, like mammals and birds. (They) then used it on all major groups of species, coming up with estimates of 7.7 million species of animals, for example, and 298,000 species of plants.

Terry Erwin, an entomologist at the Smithsonian Institution, think there’s a big flaw in the study. There’s no reason to assume that the diversity in little-studied groups will follow the rules of well-studied ones. “They’re measuring human activity, not biodiversity,” he said. David Pollock, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Colorado who studies fungi — a particularly understudied group — agrees. “This appears to be an incredibly ill-founded approach,” he said. There are 43,271 cataloged species of fungi, based on which Dr. Mora and his colleagues estimate there are 660,000 species of fungi on Earth. But other studies on fungus diversity suggest the number may be as high as 5.1 million species. ….

Jonathan Eisen, an expert on microbial diversity at the University of California, Davis, said he found the new paper disappointing. “This is akin to saying, ‘Dinosaurs roamed the Earth more than 500 years ago,’ ” he said. “While true, what is the point of saying it?”

At least it could be argued that there are not less than 8.7 million eukaryotic species. This is not likely to be the end of this story. Nevertheless it does at least show the scale of the problem and that the number of all living species (and not just eukaryotes) is still in the realm of the unknown.

And the importance of the disappearance of unsuccessful species and of the resulting bio-diversity on humanity is still an unknown unknown.

Resource depletion is imaginary

October 19, 2010


Limits of growth

Doomsaying: Image by net_efekt via Flickr


“Humanity’s demands on natural resources are sky-rocketing to 50 per cent more than the earth can sustain”

trumpets the WWF.

Similar headlines have been common-place for the last 40 years. “The Limits to Growth” in 1972 was not the first time such dire predictions were made. They only carried on from where Malthus left off with his  An Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798. And before Malthus there were plenty of alarmists and doom merchants  at least as far back as mankind has lived in complex societies where opportunists could exploit people by fears of catastrophes and impending doom.

Unfortunately, today’s so-called conservationists have descended to the level of doom “merchants”. Either they are propagating fears of humanity running out of food or oil or coal or metals or water or rare earths or they are screaming about the Earth running out of biological species or of polar ice or sustainability.

But I am not convinced.

Actually, mankind destroys nothing. At the elemental level we neither create or destroy anything (except in the use of nuclear energy where some elemental transformation takes place and where some little mass is converted to energy). All the metals we use or the fuels we use are merely transformed from one compound to another and occasionally some molecules are reduced to their elemental form. The Earth as a system loses only heat (and if the global warming maniacs are to be believed we are not even losing that). The mass of the earth changes only by the accretion of meteors and the leakage of atmosphere and this change is of no material significance.

All the elements that were available remain available. The forms of compounds that we currently use and which have been created slowly by slow natural processes may well be used up. But so what? Mankind has always used what is available and when natural rubber was not enough we made synthetic rubber. We usually take what is available and transform it into the form we want. We take metal oxides, reduce them to the elemental metals and then recombine them into the qualities of steel or alloys we need. We take oil and convert it into plastics. We take plant material and make paper. We take other plant material and make oils. We take sand and make glass. We take limestone and make cement or concrete. We are a carbon-based life form. We use carbon in all its forms as diamonds and all organic materials and now as graphene for nano-materials. We take oil and make food. Nearly all the drugs we use are synthesised.

Even if we restrict ourselves to the known form of the resources we use, we cannot forget that 70% of the Earth’s surface is covered by water. We have not even begun to see what can be found there. Even the off-shore oil and gas we extract hardly scratches the (submerged) surface. We are crowding out some particular species but keep finding new ones. The number of mammals (but not necessarily species) in existence is increasing rather than reducing. The diversity of life in the sea is hardly touched.

The overwhelmingly pessimistic view of mankind and its future which drives the current-day conservationists to their creed of “stop everything” goes nowhere. “Stop the World, I wan’t to get off” is not something for me. A strategy for humanity – like any other strategy – cannot be based on “what not to do”.

I suppose it is the difference between an optimist and the doom sayers. I see no energy crisis – only some technological challenges to be met. I see no food crisis – only some tasks to be carried out, and these tasks do not need any technological breakthroughs. The Earth and the Sun will take care of climate as they see fit and our task is to adapt to whatever changes may come and not to waste our time in any futile attempt to try and control it. We could stop using all energy today and the Earth and the Sun will still cause climate change to happen and mankind is not even a bit player in that music.

I remain an optimist and I believe in the human ability to develop technology. As educational standards improve, human population will probably increase till about 2050, then reduce slightly from about 10 billion people and then stabilise at a very slow rate of growth. This development will be dynamically coupled to our rate of technological development which will continue but where we cannot predict the rate of breakthroughs appearing. A breakthrough in transportation methods (and since the invention of the modern internal combustion engine for transport in 1862, this is now overdue) or a breakthrough in food synthesising technology or finding new sources of energy (and I do not mean wind or solar) will have an obvious effect on quality of life and on rate of population growth.

A true environmentalist must be first concerned with the quality of life for humankind. The “environment” devoid of humans is no environment at all. I wish the so-called conservationists (who are not in my opinion true environmentalists) would stop telling me what not to do.

There is no resource crunch. There may come shortages of resources in the form we are used to but I have supreme confidence in our ability to develop the required technologies to keep improving on our quality of life – and to keep evolving.

UN appoints an “Alien Ambassador” – Alien travel to earth suspended.

September 27, 2010
Logo of UN Office for Outer Space Affairs


This is probably the kiss of death for any prospective alien visits to earth.

An Alien Ambassador is to be appointed by the United Nations to act as the first point of contact for aliens trying to communicate with Earth.

In the midst of a global financial meltdown and a painful recovery the UN is displaying a remarkably insensitive – but not unsurprising – sense of priorities.

But the required quota of Malaysian UN appointees has probably been filled.

Take me to your leader

But good luck anyway to Mrs Mazlan Othman, a Malaysian astrophysicist, who is going to co-ordinate humanity’s response if and when extraterrestrials make contact. This sounds like a well-paid and tenured appointment which should last at least for life. Mrs Othman is currently head of the UN’s little known Office for Outer Space Affairs (Unoosa).

She is quoted to have said:

“The continued search for extraterrestrial communication, by several entities, sustains the hope that some day human kind will received signals from extraterrestrials. When we do, we should have in place a coordinated response that takes into account all the sensitivities related to the subject. The UN is a ready-made mechanism for such coordination.

Under the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which Unoosa oversees, UN members agreed to protect Earth against contamination by alien species by “sterilising” them.

Alien travel agents must now be striking Earth off their tours.

Oh Dear !

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