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 I 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.
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.
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.