How many species?

This guest post by Terry Wheeler originally appeared on the Lyman Entomological Museum blog.

One of the fundamental rules of running a business is that you have to keep track of your inventory. If you don’t know what’s in the warehouse, or who works for you, you’re not going to get very far as a manager. I think about this every time somebody asks me how many species of flies live in Quebec, or how many species of insects there are in Canada, or how many beetles there are on the island of Montreal. The answer to all three questions is the same – “we don’t know”

Now, as embarrassing as that answer is, it’s not because I didn’t study, or because I can’t be bothered to look it up; it’s because we (“we” being the scientific community) simply DO NOT KNOW.

In 1979 a newly minted group called the Biological Survey of Canada published a book called Canada and its Insect Fauna edited by H.V. Danks, but containing the collected wisdom of the Canadian entomological community. And the purpose of that book was to describe the state of our knowledge of the terrestrial arthropods of Canada. The question was “how many species?”. The answer was “33,672″. End of story? Not a chance. Because the other key number in that list was “32,826″ – that’s a ballpark, top-of-the-head estimate of how many MORE species were living in Canada but remained unrecorded or undescribed. That number is an underestimate.

So, that means that in our own country, where the insects we study are running or flying or crawling or swimming around underfoot, we know less than half of our own species. It’s not because of a fundamental laziness in the entomological community (we’re a hard-working crew!); it’s simply because insects are difficult and diverse, and because there are only so many of us to get the job done.

In the 30-odd years since Canada and its Insect Fauna was published, the Biological Survey of Canada has continued to persevere in documenting the Canadian arthropod fauna. We know a lot more now than we did then, but there’s still a long way to go. New species are sitting preserved in our collections waiting to be discovered and described. New records are running around in our back yards waiting to be documented. Many habitats and regions of Canada have been explored in only a passing way for most arthropod groups. When potential new students come to my lab and ask if there are any good projects to do on taxonomy or phylogeny or inventory of insects around here the first thing I do is pull up a chair for them. They’ll need to get comfy – it takes a while to run through the list.

Nothing gets a job done like spouting optimism, and the entomologists of Canada are, on the whole, a pretty optimistic crew. The job ahead is enormous, but with a great group of people chipping away, we will get the job done. Canada and its Insect Fauna II is the goal we need to aim for.

Why? Because arthropods are intimately connected to every single terrestrial ecosystem in this country. Insects and spiders and mites and their little-known relatives are the mechanics and engineers and drivers and barometers of life on earth and we won’t truly understand, or be able to manage or conserve, those ecosystems until we know who is doing the work.