Why this pursuit of new species
Discovering new species is crucial to understanding evolutionary processes and ensuring food security and human welfare
WITH VARIED ecological and climatic conditions, India is one of the 17 mega-diverse countries. With only 2.4 per cent of the world’s landmass, it harbours 7-8 per cent of the species known worldwide—over 45,000 species of plants and 96,891 species of animals. But increasing developmental activities and changing climate in recent decades are threatening India’s rich biodiversity. Its natural habitats and ecosystems are being reduced, replaced or modified to the extent that they can no longer support the original potential of biodiversity. Large-scale extinction of species and the loss of genetic diversity have become a harsh reality.
This loss has far-reaching implications for food security and economy. A significant number of people in the country directly or indirectly depend on the biodiversity for food security and livelihood. The biological resources also constitute the feedstock for industries like biotechnology. To conserve these biological resources and to ensure their sustainable use and fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of utilisation of resources, India has ratified the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity and has passed the Biological Diversity Act, 2002.
It is also imperative to document changes in the diversity, distribution and composition of animal and plant communities. For this, it is important to discover, identify and name species across the world and prepare a complete inventory, if not the absolute one. Remember, new species is a resource to the nation and humankind. Called taxonomy in scientific lexicon, this system of naming and classification is essential to understand the evolutionary process that produced the diversity of life. At a broad functional level, taxonomy is also an applied science basic to human welfare. It is essential to know the identity and name of an organism before undertaking any kind of research on it—be it related to biodiversity, conservation, ecology, agriculture, fisheries or medicine.
Since common names vary from region to region, organisms are assigned scientific names, which are uniform and universal. In most cases, these are binominal—meaning, they have a generic and specific name. Sometimes, the names are trinomial, and the third name refers to the name of subspecies, variety or form. Names are given to organisms according to the international codes of zoological, botanical and bacteriological nomenclature.
At the core of these codes is the “type specimen”—a particular specimen based on which the discoverer describes the species and fixes its scientific name. This is followed by inventorying and monitoring of biodiversity. Preparing the inventory includes surveying, sorting, cataloguing and mapping of entities, such as species, populations, habitats, ecosystems or their components, and synthesis or analyses of the information into patterns and processes. Whereas monitoring refers to the process of making repeated inventories over time and space and measuring change in the patterns or process of biodiversity.
The Zoological Survey of India ( zsi) has been actively documenting animal diversity of the country since its inception in 1916. Every year, it carries out systematic surveys and explorations to discover and describe new species. So far, zsi has described more than 5,000 species new to science from diverse ecosystems and habitats of India and its neighbouring countries. It has also published over 1,500 scientific documents on fauna of India, including documents on fauna of 22 states, many protected areas and ecosystems, and status surveys. zsi is a major repository of the National Zoological Collections of voucher specimens, including nearly 20,000 type specimens, of all faunal groups, from protozoa to mammals, known from India and the adjacent countries.
After all, scientific documentation of fauna at local, regional and ecosystem levels is essential for longterm conservation and sustainable utilisation of biological resources.