By now the story has become something of a local legend. It goes something like this: Brian Brown, entomology curator at the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles, bet a museum donor that he could find a new species, entirely unknown to science, just about anywhere.
It sounds like an audacious claim until you realize that there are perhaps as many as 8.7 billion species that exist, right now, on planet Earth. Of those, most are animals. Then there are more than a quarter million plant species, and nearly two thirds of a million kinds of fungi. The rest are critters like protozoans and algae. We are members of a staggeringly large biological family tree, exceedingly difficult to comprehend in its vastness.
Think of every animal you know about. All the bumblebees and dragonflies, every type of fox and antelope, lizard and pigeon, bluebird and mountain lion, coyote and koala. Then add all the zebras and giraffes and lions and crocodiles, plus each type of whale and sea lion, all the shrimps and clams, sea stars and lake bass, frogs and jellyfish. There are flowers and trees and ferns and kelp, tiny parasitic plants that live only inside other plants, and even tinier organisms that feed only on those parasitic plants.
After you account for every single species we know about, you’re left with just 1.2 million. According to one estimate, some 86 percent of terrestrial species remain entirely unknown, plus another 91 percent of marine critters. Given all that, it seems as if Brown would actually have to try hard not to discover a new species every time he turned over another rock or fallen tree branch.