The authors used data on salaries for Brazilian taxonomists and the average number of species described by them to estimate how much it would cost to describe the 5,426,075 unknown animal species thought to inhabit our planet. Most of these species—about 75%—are insects, with vertebrates making up less than one percent of the total number (the rest are non-insect invertebrates).
It’s a bit jarring to see such a big number placed on taxonomy. On the one hand, it seems astonishing that just describing a species costs so much—$39,000 per insect species, $61,000 for other invertebrates, $122,000 per vertebrate. However, these numbers reflect salaries of people who do a lot more than taxonomy—they undoubtedly have other research and teaching duties. If you divide the cumulative salary of each researcher by the number of species they describe in a career, these are the numbers you get, but it doesn’t amount to how much a research gets for each species description. (There are fewer vertebrates to be discovered, so taxonomists describe fewer per career, hence it “costs more” to describe a vertebrate.) But this is beside the point. Even scientists who primarily do taxonomy (and they are few) don’t do only taxonomy; the cost of hiring more researchers does reflect the true cost of describing all these species. Which perhaps suggests that we need a better way to do this.
Perhaps more shocking than the monetary value is the time it would take to describe five billion animals: about 360 years. That’s at the current average rage of 16,000 new species a year, which seems astronomical to me already! It does make one wonder if cataloguing and naming everything should be a definite goal. That $263,000,000,000 could probably buy up a large swath of Amazonian rainforest, for instance, which would in turn buy us time to discover the species within it before they go extinct.
There are undoubtedly ways to lower these costs. The authors focus on changing young scientists’ perceptions of taxonomy as dull stamp collecting, but perhaps a financial incentive to include taxonomy in one’s research program would do more than a public relations campaign. And perhaps we should consider more “parataxonomy” and related solutions—one of which I’ve blogged about previously.
Perhaps we should be more optimistic. Species are going extinct at a rapid rate. That enormous price tag is bound to fall over the next few centuries! Oh, wait.
For more blogging about the paper in question, see this article.
This post is about a research paper that is behind a paywall. If you’re interested in reading it and do not have access, feel free to post here and I’ll send it to you.
Carbayo, F., & Marques, A. (2011). The costs of describing the entire animal kingdom Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 26 (4), 154-155 DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2011.01.004