PLoS By Category | Recent PLoS Articles

Ecology - Science Policy

New Species in the Old World: Europe as a Frontier in Biodiversity Exploration, a Test Bed for 21st Century Taxonomy
Published: Wednesday, May 23, 2012
Author: Benoît Fontaine et al.

by Benoît Fontaine, Kees van Achterberg, Miguel Angel Alonso-Zarazaga, Rafael Araujo, Manfred Asche, Horst Aspöck, Ulrike Aspöck, Paolo Audisio, Berend Aukema, Nicolas Bailly, Maria Balsamo, Ruud A. Bank, Carlo Belfiore, Wieslaw Bogdanowicz, Geoffrey Boxshall, Daniel Burckhardt, Przemyslaw Chylarecki, Louis Deharveng, Alain Dubois, Henrik Enghoff, Romolo Fochetti, Colin Fontaine, Olivier Gargominy, Maria Soledad Gomez Lopez, Daniel Goujet, Mark S. Harvey, Klaus-Gerhard Heller, Peter van Helsdingen, Hannelore Hoch, Yde De Jong, Ole Karsholt, Wouter Los, Wojciech Magowski, Jos A. Massard, Sandra J. McInnes, Luis F. Mendes, Eberhard Mey, Verner Michelsen, Alessandro Minelli, Juan M. Nieto Nafria, Erik J. van Nieukerken, Thomas Pape, Willy De Prins, Marian Ramos, Claudia Ricci, Cees Roselaar, Emilia Rota, Hendrik Segers, Tarmo Timm, Jan van Tol, Philippe Bouchet

The number of described species on the planet is about 1.9 million, with ca. 17,000 new species described annually, mostly from the tropics. However, taxonomy is usually described as a science in crisis, lacking manpower and funding, a politically acknowledged problem known as the Taxonomic Impediment. Using data from the Fauna Europaea database and the Zoological Record, we show that contrary to general belief, developed and heavily-studied parts of the world are important reservoirs of unknown species. In Europe, new species of multicellular terrestrial and freshwater animals are being discovered and named at an unprecedented rate: since the 1950s, more than 770 new species are on average described each year from Europe, which add to the 125,000 terrestrial and freshwater multicellular species already known in this region. There is no sign of having reached a plateau that would allow for the assessment of the magnitude of European biodiversity. More remarkably, over 60% of these new species are described by non-professional taxonomists. Amateurs are recognized as an essential part of the workforce in ecology and astronomy, but the magnitude of non-professional taxonomist contributions to alpha-taxonomy has not been fully realized until now. Our results stress the importance of developing a system that better supports and guides this formidable workforce, as we seek to overcome the Taxonomic Impediment and speed up the process of describing the planetary biodiversity before it is too late.