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Species Round Up!

    Hold on--don't squish that worm--it might be unknown to science! Wait a minute before you mow down that mushroom in your yard--it might not have been discovered yet! Hey--is that a never-before-seen bacterium under your fingernail?

    Well, actually, they might well be.

    According to an article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal (on Tuesday, January 22, 2002), a science group, the All Species Foundation, has begun a new project to find out all we can about the millions of species still unknown to science. It turns out that we humans know surprisingly little of life's diversity on this planet. While we have identified over two million species, there might be as many as 10 million more -- or even 100 million!

    And these scientists want your help in tracking down the unknowns! Are you ready?

    Before you sign on, though, you should be aware that most of these unknown species are of the squirmy, slimy, mushy variety -- like fungi, insects, algae, worms, and so on. Here are some of the numbers:

    Group Identified Estimated Unknown
    Viruses 4,000 400,000
    Bacteria 4,000 over 1 million
    Fungi 72,000 1.5 million
    Protozoans 40,000 200,000
    Algae 40,000 400,000
    Nematodes (worms) 25,000 400,000
    Arachnids (spiders) 75,000 750,000
    Insects 950,000 8 million (!)
    Mollusks 70,000 200,000

          (source of chart: The Wall Street Journal)

    Many of these unidentified critters are already awaiting identification in museums and other institutions -- in fact there is quite a backlog waiting to be catalogued. But many more unknowns are out in the wild -- and may even be in your own backyard. (Or under your fingernails!)

    The identification project has already begun in Costa Rica, where local people are trained by their National Institute of Biodiversity ("InBio" for short) to look for unknown species of worms, beetles, and other creepy-crawlies, and bring them into the lab to be inspected. The All Species Foundation will pay science organizations in other countries to train more people to do the same thing, teaching them to be "parataxonomists". (That's the "word of the day" - let's break it down: "taxonomy" is the science of identifying, naming and classifying organisms. A "parataxonomist" is someone who has been given some training in the science of taxonomy, and helps taxonomists do their job, but isn't a full-fledged scientist.)

    And why should we care about all these species? Scientists think we need to know a lot more about the behavior of all the world's organisms, and the way they interact, to get a full understanding of the world's ecology. For example, recently discovered South American beetles have been found to hold down the growth of certain fast-growing plants. If the beetles become extinct through mankind's indifference or interference, the plants could run amok.

    For another reason, on a purely species-selfish level, many of these mighty mites might hold untold benefits for humanity. The above-mentioned beetle, for instance, could teach us a thing or two about weed control without pesticides. Other species might provide ingredients for cures to diseases.

    So keep your eyes peeled, and don't crush that weird looking bug -- it might be the cure for my lumbago!

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