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Why masses of new species have been staring us in the face all along

Cutting edge analyses are revealing that species of mammal are more numerous than we thought, with thousands more hiding in plain sight. These discoveries could be key to rescuing biodiversity and preventing future pandemics

Life 17 August 2022

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Harriet Lee-Merrion

Bats are the most charismatic species out there,” says Bryan Carstens, an evolutionary biologist at The Ohio State University in Columbus. Here is an animal that evolved from the same ancestor as we did and yet most species now fly around, hunting down insects in the dark by shouting at them and listening for echoes. They live for decades, longer than other mammals their size, and they are extremely social.

For Carstens, bats are compelling for another reason, too: there are hundreds of unidentified species hiding in plain sight. By scrutinising the genes of the 1400 types of bats we know of, he and his colleagues have discovered 600 new ones. And these hidden species, which have been mistakenly lumped in with others, are just the tip of the iceberg, because Carstens and his team have identified thousands of missing mammals.

We shouldn’t be too surprised. It is estimated that between 90 and 99 per cent of all living species are yet to be identified. It is also becoming apparent that many new species have already been collected, but are languishing unrecognised in museums and other institutes. In other words, our knowledge of life on Earth is pitiful. Yet with ingenuity and hard graft, researchers have found a way to reveal the many species we have missed.

It comes not a moment too soon. Our activities are causing a mass extinction rivalling the one that killed off the dinosaurs, and we urgently need to know what species are out there if we are to have any hope of reversing this destruction of biodiversity.

Cataloguing nature is no mean feat. …