Thousands of species of flora and fauna are vanishing before they are even given a name because there is a worldwide shortage of scientists to do the work.
The Government's chief scientific adviser, Sir Robert May, has warned that the rapid rate of species extinction means the crisis is even more pressing than research into the human genome, the key to the human genetic make-up.
The lack of specialist scientists means any possible benefits, such as new drug treatments, are also being lost.
The majority of existing taxonomists are in their late forties or fifties and few younger ones are coming through. Biology degree courses have been abandoning this area of expertise. And, said Sir Robert, many taxonomists concentrate on the cuddly furry animals at the expense of less-sexy but vitally important organisms.
The UN has warned that the Indian tiger could be extinct within five years, said Sir Robert, yet it has no idea which smaller creatures are dying out or what will happen when they do. "We don't fully understand the consequences of what we're losing," he said. "We could lose 80 per cent of species and still have a functioning biosphere, but we don't know. And would we want that kind of world?"
Work on the human genome is the most important part of life sciences, because of the potential for medical advances he said. "But we can wait for those advances if we have to for 200 years. There is a time limit to this problem not found elsewhere in science."
Professor Paul Henderson, the Natural History Museum's director of science, said more than 40 per cent of the world's economy depended on its biological resources.
Less than 15 per cent of the world's species have been identified, around 1.5 million. Yet the Natural History Museum, the major research institute in its field in Britain, has suffered a 20-per-cent cut in government grants in real terms since 1990.
"If we're really going to understand the biodiversity, we need to know what species there are," he said. "With the present number of taxonomists, it would take about 600 years to do this characterisation of species."Reuse content