A Call To Explorers: Can We Find Species Before We Lose Them?

Guest Blog By Lydia Ball – When the U. S. Navy sent the Trieste deep boat to the Mariana trench in 1960, it was the first time that humans had reached the deepest part of the ocean. The ocean floor was covered with silicon-based algaes, known as diatoms, and Jacques Piccard, a crew member, described it as “snuff-colored”.  Since then, technological advances have allowed for further exploration with more scientific rigor. In 2012, James Cameron made the second manned dive to the depths of the Mariana Trench. A flat, desolate landscape, seeming sparsely populated except for small shrimp-like creatures swimming before him as he collected geological and biological data.

But, these high profile expeditions are not alone in their ambitions to illustrate the ocean. Dr. Ward Appeltans, of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, stated that each year an increasing number of authors are describing more species than ever before. Dr. Appeltans counted approximately 20,000 new species named in the past ten years. Findings, such as the 2010 sighting of a new species of basket star, Gorgonocephalus sp., a bright orange brittle star with twisting tendril arms, inspire us and remind us how diverse the Earth is. They also remind us how little we have seen and how much we still have to learn about the marine habitat. Journal articles and news reports on newly named species call to the explorer in all of us, and whisper of unfamiliar places.

Photo from the British Antarctic Survey of the new brittle star.

However, we are currently starting a mass extinction. A mass extinction is when the standing number of species decreases by over 75% in less than two million years, a geologically short time period.  Mass extinctions are truly catastrophic events. The experts at the International Union for Conservation of Nature have shown that we are losing species at a rate 1,000 to 10,000 times higher than the normal rate of extinction. A study published in Nature by Dr. Anthony Barnosky, of the University of California, Berkeley, states that we could see the full effects of a mass extinction in less than 240 years. There have been five previous known mass extinctions on Earth – all caused by natural forces. The current mass extinction stems from human impacts, such as pollution, habitat loss, ocean acidification, over-hunting, over-fishing, and climate change. In fact, in the last 500 years, human activity exterminated at least 869 species, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

So what do our discoveries mean in a time of loss? What have we lost without even realizing it?

Even though, we have already forever altered Earth’s oceans, perhaps we can use the discovery of new species to highlight the need for conservation. With higher numbers of species, the oceans and other ecosystems, are more stable and provide more benefits for humans. And some benefits are still unknown. Every time we lose a species, we are losing millions of years of evolutionary adaptation. For all we know, hints to more effective medicines might be hidden in the genes of another undiscovered brittle star.

Conservation is not necessary just for practical reasons. The loss of wild beauty found in nature spurs many activists. Images of James Cameron’s deep-sea adventure will hopefully turn more attention towards the oceans’ bizarrely unique creatures. Perhaps we will ask ourselves, what will the world look like when we have 75% less species? And are we willing to live in a world where there is nothing left to be explored?


Lydia Ball is a senior Environmental Science major at Colby College.

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