Pandemic hit the pause button on the discoveries of new species
This article originally appeared in Mongabay on March 16, 2022
- The COVID-19 pandemic slowed down the progress of species discovery and documentation due to travel bans, restricted access to technology, and limited funding, according to researchers who work in leading biodiversity inventory projects across the world.
- In 2020 and 2021, the E.O. Wilson Foundation Half-Earth Project documented just 250 species that are new to the Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique, less than a quarter of their normal rate. In an average year, the project documents about 1,200 species.
- Identification and description of Earth’s species is critical for conserving threatened and endangered species before they go extinct.
- On the other hand, the pandemic has also been beneficial to a certain extent by giving scientists more time to review available data of specimens and familiarizing themselves with gene sequencing.
In November 2011, when a pregnant beaked whale drifted ashore on New Zealand’s Waiatoto Spit, Ramari Stewart, an Indigenous whale watcher, noticed that the whale looked slightly different to those usually stranded.
It measured about 5 meters (17 feet) long, and after its skeleton was prepared and featured in the National Museum of New Zealand, which houses one of the largest whale collections in the world, most experts believed the animal to be a True’s beaked whale (Mesoplodon mirus). The species is known for its unusual geographic distribution, found in the waters of both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.
In 2016, Emma Carroll, a molecular ecologist at the University of Auckland, decided to look deeper into the matter, suspecting there could be a genetic distinction in the species, thanks to the animal’s peculiar distribution.
“They are all generally not the same species, though they look similar,” Carroll told Mongabay in a video call.
Through a collaboration between international researchers and a thorough genetic analysis of at least a dozen whale tissue specimens from each hemisphere, Carroll’s team eventually concluded last October that the whale attended by Stewart, although closely related to the True’s beaked whale, is a distinct new species altogether. The team named it Ramari’s beaked whale (Mesoplodon eueu), in honor of Stewart.
The finding illustrates larger issues in biology and the documentation of Earth’s biodiversity, Carroll said, as we don’t have a very good understanding of the deep ocean and the estimated 1.5 million marine species yet to be described by science.
This also applies to Earth’s terrestrial biodiversity, according to researchers who work in leading biodiversity inventory projects across the world. About 86% of land species are thought to still be undocumented by science.
In the past two years, the pandemic and its restrictions delivered a severe blow to the already slow and meticulous biodiversity inventory operations that range from collecting specimens in the field to analyzing them in laboratories. Scientists worry that the slowdown could accelerate the loss of species to extinction.
The most significant impact of the pandemic on these efforts has been the allocation of funds away from inventory projects and the restriction of access to the field for collecting specimens. On the other hand, the pandemic has also been beneficial to a certain extent by giving scientists more time to review available data on specimens and familiarizing themselves with gene sequencing.
Pandemic brings hurdles to species documentation
Biodiversity inventories provide the baseline information on living organisms in a particular area. Essentially, they harbor information that is extremely critical for conserving threatened and endangered species before they go extinct. Conservationists must identify and describe a species to properly analyze the impact of biodiversity loss, climate change, industrial projects and the relationships between species in an ecosystem.
Some species usually go unrecognized for a long time because most newly collected specimens are archived in herbaria and museums for years and even decades before they are identified as a new and distinct species, as with Ramari’s beaked whale. Moreover, it takes on average about 21 years to describe a species after it has been discovered.
The E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation’s Half-Earth Project, an initiative launched by the late E.O. Wilson with the objective of conserving half of Earth’s land and sea, also partakes in this species identification work. Inventory work is done in Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique. The project involves inviting scientists from different parts of the world to work on the collected specimens.
Due to travel restrictions during the pandemic, they couldn’t rely on external expertise, said project chair Piotr Naskrecki.
But the major impact of the pandemic that the Half-Earth Project faces is the difficulty in performing lab work, Naskrecki said. As a conservation biologist, he spends his time at Gorongosa surveying and collecting specimens, and carrying out the rest of the analysis in the project’s molecular laboratory.
“For instance, if it is a bat, we usually take a teensy-weensy, little piece of tissue and then release the bat. We have the genetic material that later allows us to confirm its identity,” Naskrecki told Mongabay. The lab work involves performing genome sequencing and DNA barcoding, which Naskrecki considers pivotal to quickly doing species identification.
“Though we often need to get certain reagents or equipment from the U.S. And it was extremely difficult to get them from there ever since the pandemic began,” Naskrecki said. Repairing a piece of malfunctioning equipment took almost a year, he added.
In an average year, the Half-Earth Project documents about 1,200 species that are new to Gorongosa National Park. But in 2020 and 2021, they documented just 250 species, less than a quarter of their normal rate.
Another inventory, the Global Forest Biodiversity Initiative (GFBI), operates with more than 200 scientists from 90 countries who share their data and expertise to document plant species. Recently, the GFBI estimated the number of global tree species to be about 73,000.
For the GFBI, the problems exist at more than one level, co-founder Jingjing Liang told Mongabay in a call. At the individual level, there is difficulty in gaining access to the field because of ongoing travel restrictions posed by the pandemic, and this impacts biodiversity surveys.
“For instance, my biodiversity field survey in Indiana had to be delayed by at least one year,” Liang said.
The GFBI also relies on researchers across the world being able to collaborate, and the pandemic is an obstacle to meeting each other and attending conferences, Liang said. At another level, there are the budget constraints.
“At present, more funding is allocated only towards COVID research,” Liang said.
One of the earliest biodiversity inventories, the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory (ATBI), is confronted with similar financial issues. Lack of funding during the pandemic is a huge problem for nonprofit organizations like the ATBI, which focuses on cataloging species in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the southeastern United States.
“Donations are lower than normal,” Todd Witcher, the inventory’s executive director, told Mongabay in a video call. “And certainly, grants have been more competitive.”
The ATBI has recorded around 10,000 species so far, Witcher said. Like the Half-Earth Project, the ATBI to a certain extent relies on external scientific expertise, and this has been affected in the past two years.
On average, the ATBI documents five new species in the Smoky Mountains each year. However, because it takes at least five years for species description, Witcher said, “we don’t see a slowdown at this point, but this will definitely be evident in the next couple of years.”
In other ways, biodiversity inventories have benefited from the pandemic, according to Christopher Meyer, curator of mollusks at the Smithsonian Museum.
“It has provided some time for self-assessment and reviewing the available data of the specimens,” he told Mongabay in a video call. “It has also made us a lot more familiar with gene-sequencing techniques that could be applied to biodiversity inventories. You can sequence everything after COVID. You know, we’ve learned, ‘how simple is this!’”
Genetic analysis of specimens commonly helps biologists arrive at a common metric for identifying them. For example, matching the DNA of a species with the DNA that it has shed in the environment, called environmental DNA, can provide insights on the whereabouts and range of the species, Meyer said. With the pandemic, scientists have become more erudite in its usage.
Genetic analysis is also far less invasive, he said.
“We don’t interfere with the whales by darting them, we don’t harm a creature by pulling a leg off of them,” he said.
Although the pandemic has largely interfered with outdoor sample collection, Meyer said, growing knowledge of the virus’s variants and ramped-up vaccination has led to increased sampling work.
Improving species documentation and conservation
Setting aside the impact of pandemic restrictions on travel, the description of new species is in general unfolding at a very slow rate, according to the Half-Earth Project’s Naskrecki. Specimen collecting and subsequent processing usually are performed at multiple locations, which Naskrecki said creates a bottleneck.
“I’m a strong proponent of reducing what is called ‘helicopter science,’” he said, referring to the type of research where scientists, often from richer countries, travel to other nations, often poorer ones, to collect samples and return to their countries to analyze the data. “I would love it if every country had centers like ours, which are dedicated specifically to biodiversity, documentation, and exploration.”
In Costa Rica, the National Biodiversity Institute is becoming an effective model and solution for biodiversity conservation in other countries. The sole job of this institute, Naskrecki said, is to understand their own biological heritage by documenting and analyzing their species, all in one spot.
“If a place like Costa Rica can do it, I see no reason why places like the U.S., for example, shouldn’t be able to do,” Naskrecki said.
Liang, who is also a forest ecology professor at Purdue University, said international collaboration would largely help in accelerating species description by making more data available.
According to scientists involved in documenting and describing species, to regain the momentum of their biodiversity inventory projects, several tools such as genetic analysis, DNA barcoding of collected specimens, data analysis of species distribution, and international collaborative efforts can help.
Likewise, the key to ramping up species discovery could involve bringing more people in and creating more awareness, Witcher said.
Designing more phone applications to encourage people to document species they spot during hikes or even while strolling in their backyard would speed up the process, he said. He added it’s important to focus on groups of organisms such as flies and pollinators, as much as we focus on charismatic species like bears or elks.
With travel restrictions starting to wrap up around the world, Witcher said he’s optimistic that biodiversity exploration will fully resume later this year. Nackrecki said he agrees.
Ultimately, tools like genetic analysis are vital to quickly identifying and describing new species. The ATBI currently doesn’t have a laboratory of its own because of problems with funding, and Witcher said his goal is to install a lab for identification in the upcoming years.
As he puts it, “it’s hard to really do good conservation if you don’t even know what exists.”
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