The thrill of discovering new species

Discovering a new species is an exciting moment for researchers. Often, it humbles everyone by demonstrating how little we know. The finding of a new species of an elephant shrew in a biodiversity hotspot in Tanzania, the first in 126 years for such an animal, is no different. New Scientist points out that this shrew is not related to true shrews. Sky News has put out a video of the species on YouTube.

We live in times when many are unaware of the importance of biodiversity, not just as the colourful mosaic of life, but as vital foundation of weather, monsoons, water supply, agriculture and barriers to disease.

The monsoon rainforests of Africa, Asia and Latin America hold a large number of as yet undiscovered species. The elephant shrew was found in a site that has yielded 25 vertebrate species in the last decade; when this fact is considered along with the assessment of Harvard Professor E.O.Wilson, that the bulk of undiscovered species are invertebrates, and you realise the scale of the unfinished task. We must document several million species more. Take for instance, today’s report of bee populations under stress in many parts due to colony collapse disorder. France along has 1,000 bee species, and it is not a region particularly famous for biodiversity. On the other hand, there are 20,000 known bee species worldwide, as reported by AFP in The Hindu today, and many more definitely waiting to be discovered.

The impact of our actions on remote natural landscapes is often not publicised. One instance is that of the material coltan, which is used in the making of mobile phones. The legendary field biologist, George Schaller told me sometime ago on a visit to Bangalore, that the rapacious expansion of coltan mining in a poor country, the Congo, was destroying the habitat of gorillas and leading to the avoidable extermination of this kin of Man. Schaller has also written on the subject for the BBC.

We never come across statements from Nokia, Motorola, Sony Ericsson and others, on where their coltan is coming from. Perhaps it is from some ethical source, but we do not have any information on that.

For many species, some of them as yet undescribed, human activities may be sounding the death knell.

If you are interested in species discovery, you should be visiting Conservation International here, and the WWF here. The Mysore-based Nature Conservation Foundation in India has also done great work, discovering the Arunachal Macaque not long ago.

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