A common approach to estimating the total number of extant species in a taxonomic group is to extrapolate from the temporal pattern of known species descriptions. A formal statistical approach to this problem is provided. The approach is applied to a number of global datasets for birds, ants, mosses, lycophytes, monilophytes (ferns and horsetails), gymnosperms and also to New World grasses and UK flowering plants. Overall, our results suggest that unless the inventory of a group is nearly complete, estimating the total number of species is associated with very large margins of error. The strong influence of unpredictable variations in the discovery process on species accumulation curves makes these data unreliable in estimating total species numbers.