To speed up the cataloging of an estimated 10,000 undescribed species of lichens, Field Museum lichenologists Thorsten Lumbsch and Robert Lücking used a unique approach in bringing together over 100 colleagues from institutions world-wide to describe a total of 100 new species from all around the globe in a single publication.
Biologists estimate our planet to harbour between 10 and 100 million species. Only about 2.2 million of these have been discovered and described by taxonomists around the globe during the past three centuries. These include approximately 1.5 million animals, 400,000 plants, 100,000 fungi (including lichens), 200,000 protists and 10,000 bacteria. At this rate of discovery, and considering the dwindling number of taxonomists due to many institutions shifting their focus onto molecular biology, it might seem impossible that the remaining species ever be described, and with the ongoing destruction of their habitats, we might not even know that they ever have existed. Taxonomists have long recognized this problem and are looking for innovative strategies to get at least part of the work done as quickly as possible. International collaboration is the key to this effort, whereas in the past, taxonomists mostly worked in small groups or as single authors. Organized by lichenologists Thorsten Lumbsch and Robert Lücking from The Field Museum in Chicago, the international lichenological community made an effort to describe one hundred new lichen species in a single paper.
Lichens, intriguing symbiotic associations between fungi and algae or cyanobacteria, are not the largest group of organisms, but they stick out by their capability to colonize almost any substrate in a wide range of terrestrial and even marine ecosystems and by their uses as bioindicators of environmental health and in the pharmaceutical industry. About 17,500 species of lichens have been described and estimates predict a number of 8,500 to 10,500 additional, undiscovered species. The 100 new species described by Lumbsch et al. in their multi-authored paper the most recent volume of Phytotaxa sound like a drop in the bucket, but this is the first paper ever to describe so many species in a single publication by a multitude of authors, 102 to be exact. In fact, this appears the largest number of authors ever to be united in a mycological or lichenological publication, and colleagues from all continents contributed to this work. The 100 new species originate from no less than 37 different countries around the globe, including such illustrious places as the Galapagos Islands, Madagascar, Papua New Guinea, Tasmania, and Antarctica. However, new species are continuously discovered even in the well-known regions of North America and Europe.
The authors believe that such multi-authored papers might help to describe the remaining undiscovered species more quickly, but even so, with one such publication produced each year, it will take the lichenological community another 100 years to have the remaining 10,000 estimated species catalogued. The authors also hope that such papers help to remediate the view the public has of taxonomists as boring, old people with beards spending all their time at the microscope or behind old books; indeed, species are nowadays described using modern techniques such as DNA sequencing in addition to methods such as thin-layer and high performance liquid chromatography of taxonomically important secondary substances. There is also an increasing effort to train young lichenologists in tropical countries rich in biodiversity but with limited scientific resources; many of these have contributed with discoveries of new species and are co-authors in this paper.