Shape Shifting

Conservation strategies have been historically focused on getting an overview of the species in a region, and then trying to protect those species that are endangered. I’ve written often before about how important a top predator species can be to the overall health and biodiversity of an ecosystem. For example, the presence of wolves in a natural region can impact the health of the forest and even river flow. 

Textures of liquid crystals (transitions) Source: Senyuk/Kent State University

Textures of liquid crystals (transitions)
Source: Senyuk/Kent State University

But like reading the ingredient list for a familiar recipe, we’ve worked on the assumption that carrying out a tally of individual species in a certain area and getting a consistent count usually means that the biodiversity is also remaining the same and will result in the same ecosphere profile.

If a major ingredient is missing or in decline, we work to protect it; if a ‘wrong’ ingredient has been introduced in the form of an invasive species, we work to push it back out. The goal has been to prevent a major loss of biodiversity.

Textures liquid crystals Source: Senyuk/Kent State Univ.

Textures liquid crystals (transitions)
Source: Senyuk/Kent State Univ.

But what if the entire ingredient list is shifting, forming a completely new recipe on the page, even as the number of ingredients remains the same?

A study out in Science shows that around the world, monitoring programs are showing a surprising consistency of biodiversity – but only when it comes to the absolute number of species counted. The composition of the species is an entirely different matter: In some coral reef regions, the number of coral species has dropped significantly, even as the number of algae species has increased. Florida has a wide diversity of species – when it comes to non-native ants.

Ashmole Bestiary (early 13th century) Source: Oxford Bodley Library

Ashmole Bestiary (early 13th century)
Source: Oxford Bodley Library

According to authors Nicholas Gotelli and Robert Colwell, as habitat ranges shift under the influence of climate change, some areas might see an increase in nominal biodiversity, but it will be at the cost of traditionally local species in favor of successful ‘generalists’ like invasive weeds, rats or ants.

The study concludes that there “is need to expand the focus of research and planning from biodiversity loss to biodiversity change.”

The change is happening quickly, over just a decade or even a year. A bit like putting a cake in the oven, and then when the timer goes off, opening the door to find instead a casserole.

Room to Explore

Estimated species vs described speciesVia: National Geographic

Estimated species (light blue) vs known, described species (dark blue)
Via: National Geographic


According to National Geographic, current estimates put the total number of animal species at somewhere between 3-100 million, a range that leaves a lot to the imagination. The numbers in the infographic above are compiled from a variety of sources and are considered educated guesses in the categories listed. I’ve noticed that in many popular science phylogenetic trees and species graphics, we vertebrates seem to end up on top or at the end of all currently known evolution; an obvious choice because we developed later than the other species. But somehow, I suspect that if insects and arachnids were compiling these lists, if sheer numbers, combined weight, length of time on the planet and plain old survivability counted more than evolutionary youth, brain size and number of new features, the emphasis might be quite different.

If the number of vertebrates seems small and mostly catalogued by human hand, we can take comfort in thought that only 20% of all estimated insects have been found, and there are likely still a half a million species of arachnid to be found. Plenty of stuff for scientists, explorers and the makers of scary movies.

Infographic: 5W Infographics; A. Stegmaier, NGM staff Sources: IUCN; A.D. Chapman, Australian Biodiversity Information Service