Quentin Wheeler, together with nearly 40 co-authors, has published an article entitled "Mapping the biosphere: exploring species to understand the origin, organization and sustainability of biodiversity" on the journal Systematics and Biodiversity. The major thesis of this article is as the authors claim "We conclude that an ambitious goal to describe 10 million species in less than 50 years is attainable based on the strength of 250 years of progress, worldwide collections, existing experts, technological innovation and collaborative teamwork".
Essentially, it is a call to describe 10-million species in the next 50 years.
Well, I will be almost (or already) dead after 50 years, but I certainly want to see that happen. Knowing what is in the natural world and the evolutionary history of life is as important and exciting as knowing what is in the universe and the origin of the universe. Well we probe into the universe to search for extraterrestrial intelligence, whose existence we are not certain of, we know 100% for sure there are millions of species awaiting discovery and description.
But the situation is not optimistic. Current rate of species description is about 18,000 species/year. To accomplish the "10 millions in 50 years" goal, we need to scale up to 200,000 species/year, an order of magnitude of increase in annual description rate.
I personally have no idea how we can achieve that rate (200,000 species/year). Let's talk about my personal experience. It may be different from other taxonomists', but we will be able to get a sense of the work and labor cost associated with taxonomy. I am working on a taxonomic revision of a genus with >70 species. For that number, it is considered as a 'large-scale' project, but it is certainly dwarfed by the 200,000 species/year target. I have been working on this project past few years, but with full strengthen for about one year or less. I am describing ~20 new species in this project (the other ~50 are already described). By my pace, we will need 200,000/20 = 10,000 taxonomic revisionary project at the scale of ~70 species/project. Are we there at the moment? Not even close, I bet. Accounting for >50% of the number of described species, insects are the most diverse form of life, but I don't think I am seeing more than 1000 revisions a year at the scale of ~70 species (or >20 new species), or less than 10% of required number of projects to reach that 200,000 species/year target. Of course, there are also more smaller projects or individual descriptions and we should examine their contribution to species discovery to see how much of proportion they make up.
The cost of a modern taxonomic revision is high. It involves a highly trained person, with an education at least at the Masters' level (more often PhD), shipping costs for loaning and returning specimens and expensive equipment or resources (camera, scope, computer, software, etc). I wonder whether taxonomic revisions are actually the best way of describing the unknown biodiversity. Could be a question to ponder over a little bit.
Ten million species - a dream, a vision and a challenge!
Writings related to insects, biodiversity and science in general