Humans have always been obsessed with cataloging and categorizing plants and animals. Plants, being stationary, are easy to study and have been studied for their edible and medicinal uses for as long as civilization has existed. We still study them for new technology. Thousands of years on this planet, and we haven’t yet cataloged them all. Even trees, the largest of the plants still hold secrets from us. There are around 64,000 known tree species, but a new study using AI and computer models estimates that there are about 9,000 more species of trees we haven’t yet scientifically described.
The research, done in collaboration with nearly 150 scientists, was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this year. Unsurprisingly, South America is the most bio-diverse continent for tree species. It holds 43% of all tree species, around 31,000. Eurasia comes in second at 22%, followed by Africa at 16%, North America at 16%, and Oceania at 11%.
South America is also the continent with trees we know the least about. Around 4,000 of South America's tree species have not yet been described scientifically. The hard-to-reach places with complex habitats, like mountains, valleys, and varied geology is where most species will be found. And if its harder for humans to get there, the species is less likely to be known to science.
Deforestation in many of the areas with unknown species is rampant. This could cause us to lose sensitive tree species we know nothing about. Climate change is another threat to some species because many may have small ranges and specific requirements to survive. If the climate changes or a storm or fire rages through, a tree cannot move.
We can’t conserve, or more realistically, monetize what we don’t know about. Many medications and other products are derived from tree compounds, and if we don’t protect all our species, we could be losing valuable knowledge. Perhaps an unknown tree species holds a cure for a disease or shows us a new way to store carbon efficiently. Even if not a tree itself, trees provide habitat for all manner of other species: insects, fungi, smaller plants, etc. many of whom are still also undescribed. If we protect our forests, we are protecting our future.