OpenStax Biology 2e
Despite considerable effort, knowledge of the species that inhabit the planet is limited and always will be because of a continuing lack of financial resources and political willpower. A recent estimate suggests that the eukaryote species for which science has names, about 1.5 million species, account for less than 20 percent of the total number of eukaryote species present on the planet (8.7 million species, by one estimate). Estimates of numbers of prokaryotic species are largely guesses, but biologists agree that science has only begun to catalog their diversity. Even with what is known, there is no central repository of names or samples of the described species; therefore, there is no way to be sure that the 1.5 million descriptions is an accurate accounting. It is a best guess based on the opinions of experts in different taxonomic groups. Given that Earth is losing species at an accelerating pace, science is very much in the place it was with the Lake Victoria cichlids: knowing little about what is being lost.
There are various initiatives to catalog described species in accessible ways, and the internet is facilitating that effort. Nevertheless, it has been pointed out that at the current rate of new species descriptions (which according to the State of Observed Species Report is 17,000 to 20,000 new species per year), it will take close to 500 years to finish describing life on this planet. Over time, the task becomes both increasingly difficult and increasingly easier as extinction removes species from the planet.
Naming and counting species may seem like an unimportant pursuit given the other needs of humanity, but determining biodiversity it is not simply an accounting of species. Describing a species is a complex process through which biologists determine an organism’s unique characteristics and whether or not that organism belongs to any other described species or genus. It allows biologists to find and recognize the species after the initial discovery, and allows them to follow up on questions about its biology. In addition, the unique characteristics of each species make it potentially valuable to humans or other species on which humans depend.
Clark, M., Douglas, M., Choi, J. Biology 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/biology-2e