A different dimension of loss: inside the great insect die-off
The long read: Scientists have identified 2 million species of living things. No one knows how many more are out there, and tens of thousands may be vanishing before we have even had a chance to encounter them
The Earth is ridiculously, burstingly fullof life. Four billion years after theappearance of the first microbes, 400myears after the emergence of thefirst life on land, 200,000 years after humans arrived on this planet, 5,000 years (give or take) after God bid Noah to gather to himself two of every creeping thing, and 200 years after we started to systematically categorise allthe worlds living things, still, new species are being discovered by the hundreds and thousands.
In the world of the systematic taxonomists those scientists charged with documenting this ever-growing onrush of biological profligacy the first week of November 2017 looked like any other. Which is to say, it was extraordinary. It began with 95 new types of beetle from Madagascar. But this was only the beginning. As the week progressed, it brought forth seven new varieties of micromoth from across South America, 10 minuscule spiders from Ecuador, and seven South African recluse spiders, all of them poisonous. A cave-loving crustacean from Brazil. Seven types of subterranean earwig. Four Chinese cockroaches. A nocturnal jellyfish from Japan. A blue-eyed damselfly from Cambodia. Thirteen bristle worms from the bottom of the ocean some bulbous, some hairy, all hideous. Eight North American mites pulled from the feathers of Georgia roadkill. Three black corals from Bermuda. One Andean frog, whose bright orange eyes reminded its discoverers of the Incan sun god Inti.
About 2m species of plants, animals and fungi are known to science thus far. No one knows how many are left to discover. Some put it at around 2m, others at more than 100m. The truescope of the worlds biodiversity is one of the biggest and most intractable problems in the sciences. Theres no quick fixor calculation that can solve it, just a steady drip of new observations of new beetles and new flies, accumulating towards a fathomless goal.