Tuesday, October 04, 2011

How many species are there, and why do we get two very different answers from same data?

GlobeTwo papers estimating the total number of species have recently been published, one in the open access journal PLoS Biology:

Camilo Mora, Derek P. Tittensor, Sina Adl, Alastair G. B. Simpson, Boris Worm. How Many Species Are There on Earth and in the Ocean?. PLoS Biol 9(8): e1001127. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001127
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the second in Systematic Biology (which has an open access option but the authors didn't use it for this article):

Mark J. Costello, Simon Wilson and Brett Houlding. Predicting total global species richness using rates of species description and estimates of taxonomic effort. Syst Biol (2011) doi:10.1093/sysbio/syr080

The first paper has gained a lot of attention, in part because Jonathan Eisen Bacteria & archaea don't get no respect from interesting but flawed #PLoSBio paper on # of species on the planet was mightily pissed off about the estimates of the number:
Their estimates of ~ 10,000 or so bacteria and archaea on the planet are so completely out of touch in my opinion that this calls into question the validity of their method for bacteria and archaea at all.

The fuss over the number of bacteria and archaea seems to me to be largely a misunderstanding of how taxonomic databases count taxa. Databases like Catalogue of Life record described species, and most bacteria aren't formally described because they can't be cultured. Hence there will always be a disparity between the extent of diversity revealed by phylogenetics and by classical taxonomy.

The PLoS Biology paper has garnered a lot more reaction than the Systematic Biology paper (e.g., the commentary by Carl Zimmer in the New York TimesHow Many Species? A Study Says 8.7 Million, but It’s Tricky), which arguably has the more dramatic conclusion.

How many species, 8.7 million, or 1.8 to 2.0 million?

Whereas the Mora et al. in PLoS Biology concluded that there are some 8.7 million (±1.3 million SE) species on the planet, Costello et al. in Systematic Biology arrive at a much more conservative figure (1.8 to 2.0 million). The implications of these two studies are very different, one implies there's a lot of work to do, the other leads to headlines such as 'Every species on Earth could be discovered within 50 years'.

What is intriguing is that both studies use the same databases, Catalogue of Life and the World's Register of Marine Species, and yet arrive at very different results.

So, the question is, how did we arrive at two very different answers from the same data?