Conservation, Nature, Science

There Are More Unique Species on Earth that We Thought

Soils are one of the largest reservoirs of microbial diversity on Earth. It is not uncommon for a gram of soil to contain 1 trillion cells and 10,000 species of bacteria, including Actinomyces israelii (pictured). |
Soils are one of the largest reservoirs of microbial diversity on Earth. It is not uncommon for a gram of soil to contain 1 trillion cells and 10,000 species of bacteria, including Actinomyces israelii (pictured). | Photo: GrahamColm | WikipediaCC.

If you follow science news at all, you’ve likely read about the discovery of countless new species. It seems like nearly every day a scientist somewhere is describing a new form of life that we didn’t know.

Consider microbial organisms, i.e. anything too small to be seen by the naked eye. Those little things are everywhere, with a single gram of soil containing up to a billion such life forms.

So we keep finding new life, but that has to stop eventually, right? According to a study from Indiana University, it’s more likely that we will never successfully catalog all the life on Earth.

Why? Not for lack of trying, but that study estimates that there are about one trillion unique species on Earth. How many have we found so far? Only one thousandth of one percent, meaning 99.999% of organisms out there is a total mystery.

Those are some staggering numbers, and like the best science, in trying to answer a question, these researchers found out just how little we know. The study reviewed other studies on biodiversity. Over 35,000 recorded sampling efforts of everything from trees to bacteria.

Earlier estimates assumed a much lower number of unique species, but they have routinely used sample sizes that were too small and sometimes suspect math. There also haven’t been many efforts to look at these samplings in the larger context and ask the big questions about biodiversity.

So what does all this mean? Well for one it means that scientists who study microbial life will never want for something to do, which is a nice bit of job security.

But it also gives us an idea of just how diverse life on the planet is, and why protecting it is so important because it’s not as if every single species is represented everywhere.

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