How much would it cost to identify all the animals?

By Ed Yong | February 15, 2011 12:33 pm

Around $263 billion US dollars, if a new paper is to be believed.

I’ve wrote about the paper for Nature today and the story appears on their The Great Beyond blog. Head over there to read the full thing. Here’s an excerpt:

Based on a survey of 44 Brazilian taxonomists (representing 9% of the country’s total), the duo calculated the average cost of training, funding and equipping people in the field. This might seem like an unrepresentative sample, but Brazil contains 10% of the world’s animal species and the country’s taxonomists are among the world’s most prolific. Their salaries also come close to the global average for professors.

Carbayo and Marques found that the average researcher described 25 species in their career. With around 1.4 million known animals, and an estimated 5.4 million species to discover, the duo calculated that it would take US$263 billion to cover them all. Their figures are published in an open-access letter in Trends in Ecology and Evolution.

Not all species are equal. It costs three times as much to describe a new vertebrate than an insect, although there are almost 300 times more of the latter left to identify. “You can effectively consider the warm-blooded things as done,” says Alistair Dove, who studies fish parasites.

In the rest of the piece, Chris Laly from London’s Natural History Museum comments on how online tools could drive th costs down, and Al Dove (@para_sight) says that not all taxonomists are equal. You should also read Craig McClain’s excellent WIRED article on how the scientists who study life’s richness are themselves an endangered species.

Image by Retro traveler

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Animals, Conservation, Ecology, Environment

Comments (7)

  1. I’ve been following you on Twitter, Ed, (as ifishwrite) and want you to know I truly appreciate the niche you are filling as a lead blogger. I not only enjoy what I read through your interpretations and insights; I also learn from it. Thank you.

  2. What a shame that they limited this analysis to just animals. Life can’t get along with just animals. What would the cost be if plants and fungi were included (to say nothing of microbes, etc.)? Biology is rife with this kind of zoochauvanism.

    (BTW, this is no criticism of Ed. I agree with Dwayne, above.)

  3. The usual reason: incompetence. 😉 More seriously, I’ve been out for the evening, Nature published the story, I published my story without realising that I hadn’t put a link in.

    And @Eve – Agreed that there’s a lot there besides animals but my understanding is that species estimates are even shakier for other kingdoms. For animals alone, there’s a wide range in the estimates of remaining unknown species.

  4. Chris M.

    The decline of taxonomy as a respected (read: decently funded) science is a serious problem. It’s similar in medical schools, where anatomists are in sharp decline. Studying the structure and features of an animal is apparently not enough anymore.

  5. what an amazing picture. i also agree with dwayne.

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