100,000 NZ creatures unknown or unclassified

01:43, Jan 31 2009
CREATURES: A lack of funds and experts is hampering work learning about NZ's weird and wonderful animal species. Clockwise from top left, squat lobster, two-spined crab, prasol urchin, lithodid crab, fireworm and congrid eel.

More than 100,000 New Zealand animal species remain undiscovered or unclassified as a shortage of experts holds up work which could help protect against biosecurity risks.

Biotechnology and medical research could also benefit from yet-to-be-discovered or classified species, but Niwa principal biodiversity scientist Dennis Gordon said finding and identifying them was painfully slow.

"What we can say is there are 55,000 known species. Of those, 10 per cent are freshwater species, 29 per cent are marine and 61 per cent are terrestrial. That last figure is hugely inflated by insects, wasps, butterflies, beetles, you name it."

But more than 100,000 species remain either undiscovered or unclassified. "And that could be conservative. There's a big margin of error. We simply don't know how many species there are. It's quite a problem really, and not just in New Zealand - it's a global issue."

It was important to know as much about the make-up of New Zealand species as possible, for example to deal with biosecurity threats. "If we don't know what natural species we have, what do we do if we stumble over the other ones?"

But he said a lack of investment in the "fundamental" science of classification meant there was a shortage of experts in the field.

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Cataloguing the myriad species is an almost overwhelming task.

At the present rate, it could take between four and five hundred years to find and list our undiscovered and unclassified marine species alone.

Dr Gordon is working with other scientists on the project Species 2000: New Zealand, which aims to catalogue all life forms inside the 200-mile exclusive economic zone. It includes fossil biodiversity as well as alien species that have made their home here. The project will also report to an international study.

Exactly why there were so many undiscovered species was unknown, Dr Gordon said. "That's one of the fundamental questions of ecology."

The Dominion Post