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Millions of unknown species likely in danger of extinction

The planet is home to anywhere between two million and 50 million undiscovered species, many of which are at threat from…

Many species of cone snail, which contain compounds needed to treat neurological diseases, still await discovery. Flickr/Phil Camill

The planet is home to anywhere between two million and 50 million undiscovered species, many of which are at threat from rampant habitat destruction, according to a report by an international team of researchers.

Bill Laurance, Distinguished Research Professor of Marine and Tropical Biology at James Cook University and co-author of the report, said that although species for some groups of living things - such as plants and birds - are well-known, “it is almost impossible to guess how many unknown of species of insects and fungi there are.”

Biologists are thought to have catalogued about 97% of species for mammals, between 80% and 90% for flowering plants, 79% for fish, 67% for amphibians, about 30% for arthropods and less than 4% for nematodes, the authors say in their report, published in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution.

They say unknown species could be crucial for developing new pharmaceuticals and products, providing disease-resistant germplasm for crops, and yielding insights into the way nature functions.

Venom from the Magician’s Cone, a type of cone snail which is especially abundant on the Great Barrier Reef, can be used to develop a pain reliever 1,000 times more powerful than morphine, whereas compounds from other Conus species are being used to treat many neurological diseases.

“Many species of these snails are newly discovered and many more await discovery,” Professor Laurance said. A conference last week heard that the Great Barrier Reef, like other vast coral systems of the world, is at threat from local pollution, overfishing, rising temperatures and ocean acidification.

“We simply can’t afford to lose these species because of neglect and short-sided economic gains,” Professor Laurance said.

Lead author Brett Scheffers, from the Department of Biological Sciences at the National University of Singapore, said that most unknown species were likely to be living in places where they are in danger of extinction: “We could lose many of them before we realise how valuable they are.”

Another co-author, Lucas Joppa, an ecologist in the Computational Science Laboratory at Microsoft Research in Cambridge, said that “many missing species are hard to find, such as deep-sea organisms, high mountain species or those that live underground”.

Most are thought to be small in size and living in small geographic areas, such as high-elevation rainforests in the Wet Tropics of north Queensland.

The process of cataloguing species is made more complicated by the fact that some different species have accidentally been assigned the same name, and also because some animals look nearly identical and therefore can only be identified by genetic analyses.

“New technologies such as environmental DNA analyses can detect a species presence from mere water samples without our ever seeing it,” Mr Scheffers said.

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9 Comments sorted by

  1. Marc Hendrickx

    Geologist: The Con is a bad Monty Python sketch, for climate sense see:

    Millions becoming extinct, how many millions are coming into being?

    1. Marc Hendrickx

      Geologist: The Con is a bad Monty Python sketch, for climate sense see:

      In reply to Byron Smith

      That's probably in the ball park Byron, most likely by habitat destruction. Inevitable given our population growth.

  2. John Coochey


    And your point is precisely? Should we forego major developments just because there might be an undiscovered species or should we spend major funds looking for things which we have no evidence actually exist?

    1. Geoff Davies

      Retired scientist

      In reply to John Coochey


      We have "developed" Earth beyond its capacity to support our extravagant demands. It is possible to live well without being destructive.

      The "major" funds required to document more before they are destroyed are piddling compared with, for example, the $9 billion or so annually with which we tax payers subsidise fossil fuel use.

      There is evidence these species exist, if you actually read the article - and think a little bit (a big ask, I know).

      And the authors point out the funds spent could have big benefits for humanity, if that has to be your criterion.

  3. Lisa Ann Kelly


    Wouldn't it be grand if we could catalogue species without having to collect them or trample their habitat or upset the balance? Better still, what if we had never got to this point in the first place-----where we now feel compelled to make lists of the hapless victims of our massive stupidity?

    Where humans go, destruction is certain to take place. We are the ruination of this planet, desolating and exterminating because WE are what matters. How pitiful we have become.

    I wish every human…

    Read more
  4. Ralph Bennett



    A sound case for rapid population stabilisation of our species.both here and overseas.

    This is an internationally transportable design of balanced migration. That is, immigration equals emmigration and the abolision of any baby" bonus" type policies.



  5. Margaret Rose STRINGER

    retired but interested

    Ironic, ain't it? - here we are, bewailing the loss of creatures that could extend our lives via medicine/pharmacology/etc., while our lives are responsible for curtailing theirs.

  6. Dalit Prawasi

    Auditor, Accountant, Trade Teacher

    What about the some human species that are disappearing from the earth like natives of Canada, US etc.