In 2008 the IUCN Red List had assessed the conservation status of all known mammal species. Since then, about 200 new species of mammal have been described by science in over 60 countries. These include 72 species of bats, 74 species of rodents, 14 species of primates, 4 species of carnivore, 2 species of dolphin, and a range of marsupials, moles, shrews, ungulates, and other types of mammal that span mammalian taxonomy. Despite being one of the most studied groups of species, it’s clear that many mammals still remain unknown to science.
Since most of these species are new to science and conservation, there is relatively little information on their life history, range, populations, habitat and ecology, or any conservation actions recommended that would allow IUCN and its partners to assess their conservation status in the IUCN Red List. The process for being listed in the IUCN Red List requires detailed information about a species (See: what it means to be a threatened species) and the majority of these newly described mammal species have not yet been assessed in the IUCN Red List system. In fact, since 2008, only four of the over 200 species have had their conservation status assessed, all primates:(Mico rondoni Vulnerable, Callicebus caquetensis Critically Endangered, Rhinopithecus strykeri Critically Endangered, Tarsius wallacei Data Deficient).As researchers learn more about new species, they gather information that allows IUCN to list a species in one of the Red List categories. However, despite the efforts of the biologists and conservationists who study these species, there may not be enough information for IUCN to determine a species’ conservation status. Data Deficient species are often classified as such because they are rare and have small ranges, which limits the ability of scientists to find and count them. For instance, Wallace’s Tarsier (Tarsius wallacei) is found only on the Isthmus of Palu and from a small area southwest of Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia. Photo Courtesy of Stefan Merker
In a paper released today in the journal Science and reviewed here, Stuart Pimm and colleagues contend that much of the knowledge we have about species are from those species that have ranges that exceed about 20,000 km2 and that much of the future of species discovery will come from discovering species that have small-ranges. Interestingly, Pimm et al. point out that uncertainties surrounding where species are may be more important that describing how many species exist.
What is clear is that even in the relatively small clade of mammals (about 5400 of species), there are still a large number of undescribed species. The fact remains that most of the species that we know a great deal about are wide-ranging and relatively common within their ranges and most of the species that have been described inhabit small ranges. However, the vast majority of biodiversity remains undescribed or Data Deficient.
The IUCN Red List process is about using the knowledge we learn about biodiversity to inform conservation and save species from the threats that lead to extinction. This process has led to a 20% reduction in the rate of vertebrate species extinctions. For new species it takes researchers and conservationists time to learn about their ranges, life history, habitat, and ecology. For mammals, this process generally takes around 5-10 years if there is sufficient support for researchers and Red Listers, but, is often quicker for more popular and well-funded taxa and nearly non-existent for invertebrates and fungi.
Knowing that there are so many undescribed species out there is a great thing if you’re looking to name a new species after yourself and its an exciting prospect for the discovery and conservation of biodiversity.