March 22 (UPI) -- Several years ago, Yale scientists published the "Map of Life," plotting the distribution of Earth's known species. Now, researchers have published a map of undiscovered biodiversity.
The map, published Monday in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, highlights places all over the world where little is known about local biodiversity -- places most likely to host undiscovered species.
The researchers of the new paper hope their work will inspire scientists to set out on expeditions to document some of the world's most poorly understood -- and most vulnerable -- ecosystems.
"At the current pace of global environmental change, there is no doubt that many species will go extinct before we have ever learned about their existence and had the chance to consider their fate," co-author Walter Jetz said in a news release.
"I feel such ignorance is inexcusable, and we owe it to future generations to rapidly close these knowledge gaps," said Jetz, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Yale.
Even before any new species are discovered, Jetz and his colleagues suggest their work will help policy makers, wildlife managers and conservationists craft better protections.
Previous studies of Earth's undiscovered species have mostly been quantitative, focusing on how many species are waiting to be be discovered. The latest research focused on qualitative questions -- the "what" and the "where."
"Finding the missing pieces of the Earth's biodiversity puzzle is therefore crucial to improve biodiversity conservation worldwide," said lead author Mario Moura, a former Yale postdoctoral associate in Jetz's lab and now a professor at Federal University of Paraiba.
The authors of the newly published map estimated just 10 to 20 percent of Earth's species have been described in the scientific literature.
To more precisely estimate the types of species that are waiting to be discovered -- and where they're hiding -- researchers analyzed the locations, biological characteristics, geographical ranges and historical discovery dates of some 32,000 known terrestrial vertebrates.
Scientists identified 11 key factors to estimate what kinds of species are likely to have already been discovered and what kinds are likely to be undiscovered.
Large animals with broad geographical ranges, for example, are likely to have already been named and studied by scientists. Smaller species, on the other hand, especially those with limited ranges in isolated pockets of vast wilderness, are more likely to remain unnamed.
Likewise, groups of animals that have had more species named more recently, are more likely to include many more species still missing in the scientific literature.
Scientists estimate the highest concentrations of undiscovered species can be found in Brazil, Indonesia, Madagascar and Colombia. Researchers suspect unnamed amphibians and reptiles are also abundant in neotropical regions and Indo-Malayan forests.
Because much of the world's undiscovered biodiversity is concentrated in regions where deforestation rates are accelerating, scientists must act fast to discover species before they disappear.
Researchers suggest more institutional resources must be funneled to regions where unnamed species are most likely to be found -- and to taxonomists studying the most poorly documented vertebrate groups.
"A more even distribution of taxonomic resources can accelerate species discoveries and limit the number of 'forever unknown' extinctions," Jetz said.