The naming of a new species is often taken to be a significant event in biology, much excitement in the media is devoted to the identification of a new species, but the truth is that it is mundane. Certainly some things are more rare than others (new mammals tick along at a rate far, far below that of new wasps for example) but the event itself is pretty commonplace. By the best estimates, biologists have identified something like two million unique species, which is quite a few by anyone's measure, but the total number is quite probably ten times that or more. Quite simply, it will probably take us another century or three to identify every species currently alive (though of course the rate of extinction is such that there are plenty we won't have to deal with as they will have died out before we even find out they ever existed).
Taxonomy, the field of identifying species, has been sniffily dismissed as mere stamp collecting, but this attitude belies an ignorance of what it means to correctly identify species. These are the fundamental units of biology, much as elements are for chemistry. Imagine the complexity of trying to work out chemical reactions and likely patterns and processes without recognising that some substances were composed of a single element, and others were mixtures or compounds. If we cannot identify and separate out species, the rest of biology is rather left floundering.
This might still seem like something only of interest and relevance to academics, but the implications are much more broad. A farmer needs to know which weed it is that has invaded his plot and what pesticide to use, or which flies might blight his livestock. If you're ever bitten by a snake or spider you should hope the species can be correctly identified or the anti-venom administered may be incorrect. That plant may yield a new anti-bacterial drug, but are we sampling one species or two that look alike? A new mosquito is spreading, but is it a malaria carrying species or not?
Written By: Dr Dave Honecontinue to source article at guardian.co.uk