How the continuing discovery of new species offers humility for humans

As humanity’s quest for knowledge deepens into the cosmos, perhaps we should bow modestly to the ungraspable complexity of life here on Earth, says Marcus Nield

August saw the discovery of several species new to science, including a howling Peruvian monkey, a centimetre-long toad in Brazil, 13 spiders in Australia, and for the first time in history a new species was found on Facebook when a scientist stumbled upon a stranger’s photograph of an unfamiliar plant. Though touted as important findings, a more subtle implication rumbles beneath the surface: the ceaseless influx of species to our catalogue of life forms suggests we’re far from understanding the entirety of nature’s web, despite the common conception of human superiority.

Novel species flood our museums at an unstoppable rate. 2014 alone saw the discovery of 18,000 unidentified organisms, such as a frog that gives birth to live tadpoles and a wasp that feeds spiders to her young while using dead ants to seal the front door of her nest.

“The ceaseless influx of species to our catalogue of life forms suggests we’re far from understanding the entirety of nature’s web.”

With around 1.2 million species described, the question that has baffled naturalists for centuries is: how much is left? Dr Boris Worm, a Canadian marine research ecologist, and colleagues are thought to have achieved the most credible estimation to date, which points to the existence of around 8.7 million species – in other words, a pretty hefty gap in our knowledge.

Such estimations, however, are tagged to high degrees of uncertainty. In particular, the realm of the very small bewilders even our most precise scientific instruments, to which we humans can only doff our cap at the sheer intricacy. One spoonful of average soil will contain around 10,000 species of bacteria and plenty will be foreign to science.

One may be tempted to assume that those species left concealed are simply unreachable, hiding in ocean depths or inaccessible groundwater. Though true for some, potential discoveries are right under our noses. When mycologists Bryn Dentinger and and Laura Martinez-Suz bought a product labelled ‘30g of dried porcini’ from a supermarket in London, they decided to investigate and uncovered not one, but three new species of fungi.

Bestowed with 21st century technology, it may sometimes feel we’re on the precipice of becoming godlike creatures, sculpting the world in our own image, but evolution has been spinning ‘miracles’ for us in the form of medicine that we couldn’t dream of pioneering in laboratories. Coral reefs remain an untapped biochemical larder of life-savings drugs, as many creatures produce obscure chemical defences to protect themselves from enemies. Certain types of sponge, for example, can synthesise anti-cancer substances now licensed to treat leukaemia. Only a fraction of these underwater pharmacies have been harnessed.

Like what you’re reading? Get your Positive News subscription here

When highlighting our humbling unawareness of life on Earth, Australian scientist Lord Robert May commented in the journal, PLoS Biology: “It is a testament to humanity’s narcissism that we know the number of books in the US Library of Congress on 1 February 2011 was 22,194,656, but cannot tell you – within an order of magnitude – how many distinct species of plants and animals we share our world with.”

While the Voyager satellite exits our solar system and Curiosity roams the surface of Mars, whether it is an untrodden path, a rock unturned, or an ocean depth unreachable, the treasure hunt of Earth continues to tantalise us far beyond the conquest of our microscopes.