The New Species Frontier

What’s behind the continuing stream of species discoveries? Conservation groups are spending millions of dollars to document and preserve the final frontiers of biodiversity, helped along by better technology and savvier scientists.

The latest additions to the list are contained in today’s announcement from Conservation International, focusing on the discovery of more than 50 previously undocumented species in a remote region of Papua New Guinea.

Less than a week ago, the same group took the wraps off what appear to be four new species discovered in Peru’s White Mountain Range. And last month, the headlines heralded 10 new amphibian species in Colombia as well as a dozen more found in India.

There’s a whole list of cases in which species are being found by the bunch:

– Seven coral species off Hawaii’s coast

– Hundreds of species in Australian waters

– 100 new sharks and rays named

– Jumbo marine life found near Antarctica

– New types of salamanders in Costa Rica

– Strange creatures from Philippines’ ‘coral triangle’

– 11 new species discovered in Vietnam

So what’s going on? The species rush doesn’t signal an explosion in the world’s biodiversity. In fact, it’s a reaction to what appears to be the diminishment of diversity. This is a scientific race to know what we’ve got before it’s gone, so that any remaining biological riches can be more surely safeguarded.

“If we lose these species, as [environmentalist] Paul Ehrlich would say, we’re losing the rivets in the plane or the ship that we’ve been sailing in,” said Bruce Beehler, an ornithologist who serves as Conservation International’s vice president for the Indonesia-Pacific region.

Frogs and other amphibians, for example, are the equivalents of “canaries in the coal mine” for biodiversity, as pointed out in the latest issue of National Geographic. Finding out where such species thrive – and where they seem to be most endangered – could point to the key frontiers for species conservation.

Beehler compares the exercise of species conservation to setting aside money for your savings account. “Basically, that’s our bank account for the future,” he said. Do you want to save a cent out of every dollar, or 10 cents? “It’s the same with nature,” Beehler told me. “We can clear 199 hectares and save one hectare, but that’s not going to work. We need to save more.”

But how do you identify the biological capital most in need of saving? “We’re getting to know the areas that have been overlooked better,” Beehler said. Biodiversity seems to be greater where there’s lots of rainfall, lots of topographical relief and not a lot of people.

Those characteristics point to the tropics as the richest hunting grounds – particularly areas that have remained relatively untouched by humans because they’re hard to get to.

In recent years, GPS technology and better mapping techniques have accelerated the pace of the species quest. Grand projects such as the Census of Marine Life are methodically cataloging the world’s species, and DNA analysis is helping scientists sort out how all those species are related to each other.

“The technology definitely helps identify the areas we might call the last unknowns,” Beehler said. At the same time, rising populations and the drive to exploit new frontiers are exposing those areas to 21st-century pressures. Hence the rush to identify the places where a wide range of species are thriving.

Identifying those frontiers, as Conservation International has done with its list of biodiversity hot spots, is just the first step. Once the scientists get a sense of exactly what a particular area has to offer, conservationists try to work with local governments to protect the hottest hot spots. That’s just what Conservation International is doing right now with regard to Papua New Guinea, Beehler said.