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In the past 250 years of research, about 1.78 million species of animals, plants and micro-organisms have been identified and named. But the total number of species is unknown and probably between 5 and 30 million.
About 15,000 new species are discovered every year.
In 2006, scientists described a total of 16,969 new species — including 2,000 plants species and 1,000 vertebrate species, among them 185 mammals, 196 reptiles, 108 amphibians, and 37 birds.
The challenge now is to preserve threatened ecosystems before these species, and others yet unknown, are lost.
Some recent discoveries
Among this year's top 10 picks is a tiny seahorse - Hippocampus satomiae - with a standard length of 0.54 inches (13.8 millimeters) and an approximate height of 0.45 inches (11.5 millimeters). This pygmy species was found near Derawan Island off Kalimantan, Indonesia. The name — satomiae — is "in honour of Miss Satomi Onishi, the dive guide who collected the type specimens." (Credit: Museum Victoria/Photo by Rudie Kuiter)
From the plant kingdom is a gigantic new species and genus of palm — Tahina spectablilis — with fewer than 100 individuals found only in a small area of northwestern Madagascar. This plant flowers itself to death, producing a huge, spectacular terminal inflorescence with countless flowers. After fruiting, the palm dies and collapses. Soon after the original publication of the species description, seeds were disseminated throughout the palm grower community, to raise money for its conservation by the local villagers. It has since become a highly prized ornamental. (Credit: Kew Gardens/Photos courtesy of John Dransfield)
Also on the top 10 list is caffeine-free coffee from Cameroon. Coffea charrieriana is the first record of a caffeine-free species from Central Africa. The plant is named for Professor André Charrier, "who managed coffee breeding research and collecting missions at IRD (Institut de Recherche pour le Développement) during the last 30 years of the 20th century." (Credit: University of Montpellier II/Photos by François Anthony)
And, in the category of "spray on new species" is an extremophile bacteria that was discovered in hairspray by Japanese scientists. The species — Microbacterium hatanonis — was named in honor of Kazunori Hatano, "for his contribution to the understanding of the genus Microbacterium." (Credit: Image by Arizona State University/Erik Holsinger)
Phobaeticus chani made the list as the world's longest insect with a body length of 14 inches (36.6 centimeters) and overall length of 22.3 inches (56.7 centimeters). The insect, which resembles a stick, was found in Borneo, Malaysia. (Credit: Phasmid Study Group/Photos by Phil Bragg)
The Barbados Threadsnake — Leptotyphlops carlae — measuring 4.1 inches (104 millimeters) is believed to be the world's smallest snake. It was discovered in St. Joseph Parish, Barbados. (Credit: Pennsylvania State University/Copyright S. Blair Hedges)
The ghost slug — Selenochlamys ysbryda — was a surprising find in the well-collected and densely populated area of Cardiff, Glamorgan, Wales. (Credit: National Museum Wales/Photos courtesy of Ben Rowson)
A snail — Opisthostoma vermiculum — found in Malaysia, represents a unique morphological evolution, with a shell that twists around four axes. It is endemic to a unique limestone hill habitat in Malaysia. (Credit: World Wildlife Fund for Nature-Malaysia/Photo courtesy of Reuben Clements)
The other two species on the top 10 list are fish — one found in deep-reef habitat off the coast of Ngemelis Island, Palau, and the other a fossilized specimen of the oldest known live-bearing vertebrate.
Chromis abyssus — a beautiful species of damselfish made it to the top 10 representing the first taxonomic act of 2008 and the first act registered in the newly launched taxonomic database Zoobank. As a result, in the first month following its original description, it was the most downloaded article in Zootaxa's history and was among the top 10 downloaded articles for 11 months in 2008. The discovery also highlights how little is known about deep-reef biodiversity. (Credit: Bishop Museum/ Photo 1 by John Earle.)
Also on the top 10 list is a fossilized specimen — Materpiscis attenboroughi — the oldent known vertebrate to be viviparous (live bearing). The specimen, an extremely rare find from Western Australia, shows a mother fish giving birth approximately 380 million years ago. The holotype specimen has been nicknamed "Josie" by the discoverer, John Long, in honor of his mother. (Credit: Museum Victoria/ Photos courtesy of John A. Long)
Skeptics might ask that if we are still discovering such amazing new species, why are people worried about biodiversity loss. But the discoveries are just an indication of how little we know — and a glimpse into what we could be losing without ever knowing.