Map of Undiscovered Life
In 2012, a group of scientists from Yale, headed by Walter Jetz, Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, published the Map of Life (MoL) with the intention of mapping the distribution of all known animal species on planet Earth and setting up a global database. The data collected includes comprehensive information on the location, discovery dates, geographical area, environmental and biological characteristics of around 32,000 vertebrates. However, it soon becomes clear that such a database cannot be complete, as it leaves huge gaps relating to undiscovered species. At the current rate of global environmental change, there is no doubt that many of these will become extinct before they are discovered by humans, and it is equally clear that, even today, younger generations are studying and learning about animals they have never seen or will never see.
When we consider the complexity of the animal kingdom, it is impossible to imagine we can know it in its entirety, as it is estimated that only 10–20% of existing species have been formally catalogued and described. Because of this, not even a decade after the publication of the MoL, Jetz and part of his team, which also includes Prof. Mario Moura, biologist and PhD in Ecology, released a second version of the map entitled Map of Undiscovered Life (MoUL). This time, the objective was not to classify the species we know, but to create a map of places where life is yet to be discovered.
MoUL, World map featuring Percent of total future discoveries
Published in March 2021 by the scientific journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, the study results highlight how the possibility of discovering new species varies considerably on the basis of the geographical area in question. Indeed, the research does not focus so much on how many specimens remain to be discovered but rather on where to look and what is most likely to be found. The study found that, while it is clearly more likely that species living in vast populated areas with large specimens have already been classified, it is equally likely that the existence of small animals in more inaccessible areas has not yet been detected.
The model established for the MoUL identifies a clear geographical and taxonomic mismatch in the discovery potential of different species by identifying the most significant opportunities for encountering new specimens within the reptile and amphibian families. Geographically, the Neotropical region – including all of South America, the Caribbean islands, Central America, southern Mexico and much of Mexico’s coastal regions, and southern Florida – and the Indo-Malaysian region – including part of Pakistan, the Indian subcontinent, Indochina, southern China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Sumatra, Borneo, Java and Bali – prove to be rich areas for potential discoveries. The interactive map produced to illustrate the project highlights these regions with the most “fertile” areas marked in dark purple (each pixel on the map represents 220 x 220 km).
"The research does not focus so much on how many specimens remain to be discovered but rather on where to look and what is most likely to be found."
It is clear that, in addition to geographical differences, another important factor is the amount of researchers and resources invested in discovering new animal species. By making use of a network of partners worldwide, the research team now plans to expand the “map of unknown life” to plant, marine and invertebrate species. This information will help governments and scientific institutions to understand where they should concentrate their efforts to document and preserve biodiversity.
The dialectical shift in the question, from the quantity of specimens to the probability of discovering new species, puts a new focus on the possibilities of biodiversity. Instead of seeing conservation as a numbers game, defining species by the quantity of their (often rapidly declining) populations, unknown life forms provide a new opportunity to reshape the narrative of planning, management and decision-making, with a view to conserving biodiversity across the planet.
The likelihood of undiscovered populations cohabiting with known ones indicates that biodiversity conservation should not only focus on supporting visible species but also on preserving the environment and its overall bioclimatic conditions.
This change in strategy could guarantee the conservation of as many living creatures as possible, whether large or small, known or unknown.
Screenshot of the interactive map, featuring the amphibian category, © Map of Undiscovered Life / Yale University