During the Easter holidays a couple years ago, Associate Professor Kevin Thiele was driving through a remote part of West Australian with his wife when he spotted something out the car window.
It was a strange plant. After pulling over to have a closer inspection, he realised it was an entirely new species – one the botanist would go on to officially name after his wife.
Aside from the obvious romantic value, the small holiday deed had genuine economic value too, according to a world-first report.
A vast majority of Australia's biodiversity has yet to be discovered, and doing so would unlock billions of dollars in economic value, according to analysis by Deloitte Access Economics and the Australian Academy of Sciences.
In what's been described as an untapped "gold mine" sitting underneath our nose, a greater knowledge of Australia's hitherto unknown species could be worth up to $28 billion over 25 years.
According to the best guess of taxonomists – the scientists who discover, name, classify and document species – Australia is home to about 700,000 distinct species. Since European settlement, only about 200,000 have been scientifically named.
"It’s disturbing," says Prof Thiele, the Director of Taxonomy Australia.
"When what we need to do is manage Australia’s biodiversity, which is so critical ... And we’re trying to manage it when about 70 per cent of it is invisible to us," he told Yahoo News Australia.
Australia is one of the most biologically diverse nations on the planet. However taxonomists in Australia name an average of about 1,000 new species each year – a rate that would see us somewhere near the proverbial finish-line in four centuries.
New tech makes ambitious push finally possible
Scientists are calling on governments to support a 25-year mission being launched on Wednesday to discover and document all Australian species that remain undiscovered and unnamed within a generation.
"There has never been greater urgency for speed. We know that species are under threat from climate change, land clearing and pollution," Prof Thiele said.
Such an ambitious push to discover and classify so many species wouldn't have been viable just a decade or two ago.
"Now we have all of these technologies such as artificial intelligence and super computers ... if used properly they can hugely speed up how we discover, name and document species."
The Deloitte report claims that for every $1 invested in discovering all remaining Australian species yields between $4 and $35 worth of economic benefit for the nation.
"As a foundational science, taxonomy enables and facilitates advances in many other scientific fields, including ecology, genetics, geology, earth and climate sciences, oceanography, medicine, ethnobiology, agriculture, and environmental and conservation sciences," the report says.
The analysis takes into account both potential scientific breakthroughs to augment agriculture or medicine as well as risks from not better understanding our natural environment.
For example, if an unknown organism is found in a shipment of wheat exported from Australia, payment could be delayed from the purchaser until the matter is resolved – something which has occurred in the past at great cost, Prof Thiele said.
“It’s the first time anyone in the world has attempted a study like this, to put an economic value on the discovery of new species."
There's hope the economic argument will cut through as the current trend of biodiversity protection in Australia is far from world-leading.
"With the policy settings we have in Australia, we know biodiversity is going backwards," Prof Thiele said.
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