Literally every week in summer, I encounter a new insect species that I’ve never seen before. Praying mantises in particular continually astound me with their dazzling array of shapes, sizes, colours and camouflage techniques. I am sure that the viewing of new species (at least ones that haven’t encountered) will continue out here, but musing on the mantids got me wondering just how many different species there are on earth. Or at least, how many have been classified. Both, in fact.

The order Mantodea, which includes all the mantises, is one of the most striking and diverse groups of insects we find at Londolozi. Photograph by Rob Crankshaw.

Unfortunately, depending on who you ask, that number is likely to be different each time, but a quick Google search brings it up as 8.7 million (give or take 1.3 million). That’s rather a large number. And rather a large amount of leeway, given that it may be over a million out in either direction. About a quarter of those live in the oceans and the rest on land.

If one looks at the diagram below, you get an idea of the distinction between the number of estimated versus classified species. The most significant difference lies in the kingdom Fungi, in which only a tiny percentage of the group’s occupants have been described. Less than 10% in fact. This may seem unbelievable, but when you consider that most Fungi are microorganisms, it’s no wonder that most are yet to be seen, let alone classified. Animalia is not much better, with just over 10% of its estimated occupants having been described by science.

The Kingdom Animalia is the one most people will be familiar with. This includes insects, birds, fish, mammals, and a whole host of other groups. It also includes many others that we may not even think about; shellfish, nematode worms, jellyfish and sponges to name but a few. I guess the marine ones would seem the most obscure to us.

Anyway, my point is simply that the variety of life on earth is quite staggering. From the tiny to the enormous. From the flea to the blue whale.
The incredible thing in all this is the hugely disproportionate drawcard that only a few species represent. Yes, there are people out there whose life’s work centres around what can fit in a Petri dish (and I say that with all due respect), but no tourism industry is going to be built on people flying around the world to look at things through a microscope.

The Big 5 of Africa –  lion, leopard – are the tiniest fraction of the just over 5400 mammal species on earth, yet an entire multi-billion dollar industry is based largely on them. It would be interesting to represent this graphically; a sort of which-animal-generates-the-most-revenue kind of thing. I’m guessing earthworms wouldn’t be raking in the big bucks.

Kindom: Animala. Phylum: Chordata. Class: Aves etc. None of this really matters when looking at the simple beauty of a Collared Sunbird. Photograph by James Tyrrell.

A weevil of some sort (I think). Just one of an estimated 953 434 described species of animals. Assuming it HAS been classified, that is. Does anyone recognize this guy? Photograph by James Tyrrell

Whatever the case may be, the intricacies of life’s food chain continue to astound us out here. And even though it may be the Majingilane or the Birmingham males that you have flown all around the world to see, make sure that it’s far more than just them that you leave with memories of.

Filed under Wildlife

About the Author

James Tyrrell

Photographic Guide/Media Team

James had hardly touched a camera when he came to Londolozi, but his writing skills were well developed, and he was quickly snapped up by the Londolozi blog team as a result. An environment rich in photographers helped him develop the photographic skills ...

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7 Comments

on How Many Species are in the World?

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Marinda Drake

Interesting blog James. It boggles the mind how many species there realy are. New species are discovered every day in the Amazon. Predators must be some of the animals we want to see most but you are correct. It is all about the other species.

Dina Petridis

could it be the beaded weevil??

James Tyrrell

Dina you may be right, although there are so many that look so similar I’d be hesitant to make the final call!

Jeff Rodgers

This may be my new favorite blog. As humans move way too many creatures of all kinds toward extinction because of greed, ignorance or just plain inhumanity . . . we all must learn more respect for all with which we share the planet Earth.

Callum Evans

The life that exists on this planet will forever be the greatest source of joy, inspiration, wonder and hope for me. The sheer number and diversity of life, especially what we don’t and probably will never know about. How did this earth get to be so blessed with such wonder?

Denise Vouri

Great photos James. Seems you were using a macro lens, or a long lens. There are so many creatures that we never see, consequently don’t think about, except when we’re adversely affected. Case in point – chiggers, or commonly known as “noseeums “. They are microscopic insects that live in dry vegetation. If a human comes into contact with these you can be bitten – and the bites will appear on any part of your body. They secrete a liquid that causes the skin to raise and form a blister centered bite. They are painful and extremely itchy – I know from experience. I’m not sure if they exist in Sabi Sand as I’ve not been bitten there.

So keep up your explorations And let us know when you make a new discovery.

James Tyrrell

Thanks Denise,

But credit must go to Rob Crankshaw for the macro images; they’re both his. He’s the local macro whizz.

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