There are millions of species spread across our planet’s land, sky, and water—and it’s nearly impossible to know exactly how many. A 2011 paper placed the estimate of known species around 8.7 million, but the figure is fuzzy. Scientists record thousands of new species each year, and often refine their tallies when new observations lead them to conclude that Earth is even more diverse than they thought. The entomologist Brian Brown, of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, recently told me he suspects that scientists have only documented 10 percent of the world’s fly species—a drop in a very deep pool.
Sometimes, though, the trend goes in the other direction, and a new grasp on evolutionary history leads scientists to walk back their counts.
In 2000, Kevin Omland, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, recorded two lineages of common ravens (Corvus corax). These inky corvids were once thought to be a single species worldwide, but Omland documented two genomic clusters: one in the southwestern U.S. (the California clade), and another wherever else the birds alighted (the Holarctic clade). Now, researchers at Omland’s lab, University of Oslo, University of Washington, and beyond have taken a closer…
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