Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Life on Earth

Count cryptic species in biodiversity tally

The race to describe and archive the planet's dwindling biodiversity (see K.-D. B. Dijkstra Nature 533, 172–174; 2016) becomes even more urgent with the realization that the task's scale may be an order of magnitude greater than estimated.

Dijkstra notes that we have so far named only about 1.2 million of Earth's estimated 8.7 million or so eukaryotic species. Such estimates are based largely on counts of invertebrate 'species' that are visually distinguishable ('morphospecies'). However, genetic analysis has revealed that many supposedly uniform morphospecies are complexes of multiple, reproductively isolated lineages, each of which constitutes a separate but cryptic species (D. Bickford et al. Trends Ecol. Evol. 22, 148–155; 2007).

These discoveries boost the biodiversity of even the largest vertebrates, such as elephants. The effect is greater in small vertebrates (such as lizards and frogs) and in invertebrates, which are often complexes of ten or even more species (P. M. Oliver et al. BMC Evol. Biol. 10, 386; 2010). The quoted estimate of the number of (morpho)species on Earth could therefore be just 10% of the true species number.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Michael S. Y. Lee.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Lee, M., Oliver, P. Count cryptic species in biodiversity tally. Nature 534, 621 (2016).

Download citation

Further reading


Quick links