Since there are published records of all the species discovered and named, we know how many species in all have been recorded so far, but it is not easy to answer the question of how many species there are on earth.
According to the IUCN (2004), the total number of plant and animal species described so far is slightly more than 1.5 million, but we have no clear idea of how many species are yet to be discovered and described. Estimates vary widely and many of them are only educated guesses.
For many taxonomic groups, species inventories are more complete in temperate than in tropical countries. Considering that an overwhelmingly large proportion of the species waiting to be discovered are in the tropics, biologists make a statistical comparison of the temperate-tropical species richness of an exhaustively studied group of insects and extrapolate this ratio to other groups of animals and plants to come up with a gross estimate of the total number of species on earth.
Some extreme estimates range from 20 to 50 million, but a more conservative and scientifically sound estimate made by Robert May places the global species diversity at about 7 million.
Let us look at some interesting aspects about earth’s biodiversity based on the currently available species inventories. More than 70 per cent of all the species recorded are animals, while plants (including algae, fungi, bryophytes, gymnosperms and angiosperms) comprise no more than 22 per cent of the total. Among animals, insects are the most species-rich taxonomic group, making up more than 70 per cent of the total.
That means, out of every 10 animals on this planet, 7 are insects. Again, how do we explain this enormous diversification of insects? The number of fungi species in the world is more than the combined total of the species of fishes, amphibians, reptiles and mammals. In Figure 15.1, biodiversity is depicted showing species number of major taxa.
It should be noted that these estimates do not give any figures for prokaryotes. Biologists are not sure about how many prokaryotic species there might be. The problem is that conventional taxonomic methods are not suitable for identifying microbial species and many species are simply not culturable under laboratory conditions. If we accept biochemical or molecular criteria for delineating species for this group, then their diversity alone might run into millions.
Although India has only 2.4 per cent of the world’s land area, its share of the global species diversity is an impressive 8.1 per cent. That is what makes our country one of the 12 mega diversity countries of the world. Nearly 45,000 species of plants and twice as many of animals have been recorded from India. How many living species are actually there waiting to be discovered and named?
If we accept May’s global estimates, only 22 per cent of the total species have been recorded so far. Applying this proportion to India’s diversity figures, we estimate that there are probably more than 1,00,000 plant species and more than 3,00, 000 animal species yet to be discovered and described. Would we ever be able to complete the inventory of the biological wealth of our country?
Consider the immense trained manpower (taxonomists) and the time required to complete the job. The situation appears more hopeless when we realise that a large fraction of these species faces the threat of becoming extinct even before we discover them. Nature’s biological library is burning even before we catalogued the titles of all the books stocked there.