Many Newly Discovered Species Are Already Gone

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Even some species that are found while they are still alive are already on the brink. In fact, research suggests that it’s precisely the newly described species that tend to have the highest risk of going extinct. Many new species are only now being discovered because they’re rare, isolated, or both—factors that also make them easier to wipe out, said Fraga. In 2018 in Guinea, for instance, botanist Denise Molmou of the National Herbarium of Guinea in Conakry discovered a new plant species that, like many of its relatives, appeared to inhabit a single waterfall, enveloping rocks amid the bubbly, air-rich water. Molmou is the last person known to have seen it alive.

Just before her team published their findings in the Kew Bulletin last year, Cheek looked at the waterfall’s location on Google Earth. A reservoir, created by a hydroelectric dam downriver, had flooded the waterfall, surely drowning any plants there, Cheek said. “Had we not got in there, and Denise had not gotten that specimen, we would not know that that species existed,” he added. “I felt sick. I felt, you know, it’s hopeless, like what’s the point?” Even if the team had known at the point of discovery that the dam was going to wipe it out, Cheek said, “it’d be quite difficult to do anything about it.”

While extinction is likely for many of these cases, it’s often hard to prove. The IUCN requires targeted searches to declare an extinction—something that Costa is still planning on doing for the killifish, four years after its discovery. But these surveys cost money, and they aren’t always possible.

Meanwhile, some scientists have turned to computational techniques to estimate the scale of dark extinction, by extrapolating rates of species discovery and extinctions among known species. When Chisholm’s group applied this method to the estimated 195 species of birds in Singapore, they estimated that 9.6 undescribed species have vanished from the area in the past 200 years, in addition to the disapp...

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