The World’s Oldest Science Dying

Taxonomist as Endangered Species

Parastratiosphecomyia stratiosphecomyioides, Micropachycephalosaurus hongtuyanensis, Aquila chrysaetos simurgh. Put yourself in Noah’s position, when he had the tedious task to select two of every kind for his Ark. Would you be able to spell, let alone identify this fly, dinosaur and eagle? It might be a bit easier for the bug Orizabus subaziroI, which can be red either forward or in reverse direction, the beetle Agra schwarzeneggeri, the spider Calponia harrisonfordi or the ant Proceratium google. But have you ever heard of them? Unlike Noah in the Genesis, you could now just flash your Smartphone, open the DNA Barcode App, scan every animal passing by, the name would pop up on your screen, and you could tick it off the list. This app works just like the scanner of a supermarket, which distinguishes for instance different cans of tomato soup and shows their price, using the little black stripes of the Universal Product Code (UPC). Instead of the black stripes on a can this new gimmick uses snippets of the DNA, the genetic information of every living being, to tell you whether you deal with the cicada Zyzza or the sponge Zyzzya. Two items may look, or sound, very similar to the untrained eye or ear, but in both cases the barcodes are distinct. Filling the Ark is dead easy now.

The World’s Oldest Profession

Sounds a bit too much like science fiction? Sorry to say, you are right. Even though science has made tremendous progress and we know have an electronic catalogue of almost all know plants and animals, such scanner of the ‘Barcode of Life’ is still a long way ahead. More on this later. For now, luckily the good old taxonomists are still out there to help you. Taxonomists are the stamp collectors among the scientists, as the physicist Ernest Rutherford would have said, who by the way dismissed all of the science that falls outside physics as mere “stamp collecting”. Well, they do not quite collect stamps, rather animals and plants, or more so, their names. And doing so, taxonomy, the art of naming and sorting things, is the world’s oldest profession: ‘So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals’, knows already the book of Genesis (2:20).

This naming has likely been taking place as long as mankind has been able to communicate. It would always have been important to know the names of poisonous and edible plants and animals, in order to communicate this information to other members of the family or group.

Following Noah, one could call Shen Nung, Emperor of China about 3000 BC, the second big taxonomist. He is said to have tasted hundreds of plants with the goal of learning their medicinal value. The Greek philosopher Aristotle, 384-322 BC, used a less culinary tactic but dwarfed his Chinese colleague with his claim to classify no fewer than all living things. It took however another 2000 years to master the discipline of taxonomy. More influential than ABBA, and more celebrated than Björn Borg, the perhaps most famous Swede Carolus Linnaeus invented taxonomy as we know it. Already by the age of eight he was given the nickname ‘the little botanist’, due to his keen interest in flowers. But he struggled, like many others, with the higgledy-piggledy scientific names, used in the early 18th century. The humble tomato for instance was called Solanum caule inermi herbaceo, foliis pinnatis incises acemis simplicibus. Try to remember that next time you ask for tomatoes at the market. Instead, the little botanist gave all the plants a much easier name in two parts, and the tomato became Solanum lycopersicum. Even a Chinese grocer, who calls the vegetable 西红柿, would now know what you want: a nice red tomato.

 Our global life-support system, built from bio-divers ecosystems

In biology a tomato is known as a species, the basic unit of classification. A species is often defined as a group of organisms capable of interbreeding and producing fertile offspring. A Dalmatian and a Boxer could, since they are both members of the species ‘dog’, even though their pubs might be funny to look at. A zebra and a horse could not, they are two different species. The total number of such species in the world is unknown, but probably come to between 5 and 30 million. If you ad bacteria species, this number would be much higher, since just one teaspoon of soil can have staggering one billion bacteria.

Together this fantastic variety can be described as biological diversity or biodiversity. We humans entirely depend on biodiversity for survival. Just take the wood from different trees, clean water from wetlands species, oxygen from green plants, food from all kinds of animals and fish, or the mere beauty of a butterfly on a flower. Combined, these services from bio-divers ecosystems build our global life-support system.

How many of these services have you used today, how many of these species have you already seen? Perhaps the Auroch, Tarpan, Tasmanian Tiger, Quagga-zebra, Steller’s Sea Cow, Bluebuck, Pyrenean Ibex, Falkland Islands Wolf, Atlas Bear, Caribbean Monk Seal, Bali Tiger and Javan Tiger, Eastern Cougar, or the Western Black Rhinoceros? Most probably not, since all these animals are prominent peers of the ten thousands of species, snuffed out every year. In contrast, each year, we also celebrate the discovery of new species, but only about 15,000. That means we are losing species way faster than we can yet discover and name them. We lose them before we even knew they were there, with all their services and potential, such as new medicines against cancer or HIV. An out crying shame.

Two out of three ecosystems on Earth are damaged, while most extinctions happen silently and are undocumented. Identification of large, charismatic animals may be easy. Everybody can spot an elephant. However, the majority of organisms – and organisms going extinct – are insects, plants, fungi and microorganisms. But could you tell the 70,000 or so different ant species apart? How do decision makers then decide where to establish protected areas if they do not even know what is being protected? How can developing countries ensure that they reap the benefits of the use of their biological diversity if they do not know the biological diversity of their own nation?

It is crystal clear that we need to learn more about our fanciful biodiversity with all its unique species. But is it on the cards? Cataloging all unknown species could take US$263 billion, according to a recent estimate. Money worthwhile spent to preserve our live-support system, our drip and ventilator, if you may. And just a quarter cut of the annual US military budget would easily raise the money, no worries.

The much bigger challenge is the fact that taxonomists themselves are an endangered species. We simply lack the qualified species experts needed. This is the main stumbling block to identifying the millions of unknown creatures out there. Even worse, most taxonomists work in industrialized countries, which typically have less animals and plants than the tropical developing countries.

The ASEAN’s concealed treasure trove

Southeast Asia provides the best example: The region is mega-diverse: More than 20% of the global biodiversity, 35% of the global mangrove forests and 30% of coral reefs can be found here. And even though most of these rich ecosystems are at peril, with species number in steep decline, taxonomic research in the ASEAN region is far from being in in the top list of priorities among scientists and funding institutions. Young people consider taxonomic research as a low career prospect. Taxonomy is just not cool enough, if kids even know about it. Likewise the media sector has a low awareness of the treasure trove of biodiversity information in the region, although they have a big role in its dissemination.

Mr. Demetrio L. Ignacio, Jr., Acting Executive Director of the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity (ACB) confirms that the lack of trained human resources and inadequate capacities on taxonomy is one of the main obstacles to the protection of biological diversity. ACB, based in Los Baños, Philippines, is coordinating sustainable biodiversity management in the region and focuses on the management of taxonomic information. Since September 2010, GIZ, the German development cooperation arm, through the Biodiversity and Climate Change Project (BCCP), supports ACB in its pursuit to improve the capacity to effectively catalogue the region’s biological resources.

Making taxonomy cool again

But what exactly can be done?

It starts at the local level. For instance, ACB and the Ministry of Environment of Japan are collaboratively conducting taxonomic capacity building programs in Southeast Asian countries – recently in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. However, no country can have all the taxonomic capacity it requires. The incredible diversity of the network of life in the region is just too overwhelming. It needs a network of collaboration itself. In the ASEAN region, such network is being established through the project Taxonomic Capacity Building and Governance for Conservation and Sustainable Use of Biodiversity funded by the Government of Japan. Furthermore, the East and South East Asia Biodiversity Information Initiative (ESABII) was started in January 2009 in collaboration with the ten ASEAN Member States, China, Japan, Mongolia, and Republic of Korea and six organizations including ACB. ESABII aims to gather scattered information, develop useful information database, and make them easily accessible to policy and decision makers through its website.

Furthermore, relevant government agencies, universities and institutions in each country should establish taxonomy research centers by providing the necessary incentives and employment opportunities. How this can work shows the project to assess the status of marine taxonomy in the ASEAN, through collaboration of many scientific institutions, such as the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research, in Singapore and the National Museum of the Philippines.

However, taxonomy is a global science, as global as biodiversity, which does not know political boarders. Thus, next Wednesday’s Global Biodiversity Day is a good reminder of this global dimension. The day marks the anniversary of the international Convention of Biological Diversity, adopted on 22 May 1992, and aims to increase understanding and awareness of biodiversity issues. Already at the second meeting of the Conference the importance of taxonomy was appreciated, resulting in the Global Taxonomy Initiative (GTI). GTI is a regional and global technical cooperation network as a key mechanism for meeting national taxonomic needs, such as expertise, tools and information, crucial to identify and monitor biodiversity, and threats to it.

And, as mentioned before, soon every kid could become equipped with such expertise, tools and information. Well, the App shop still does not have the DNA Barcode App in stock, but modern taxonomy already uses database technologies such as the Catalogue of Life. This catalogue attempts to list every documented species and already has 1.4 million entries, covering more than 74% of all known species. The combination of this catalogue and the DNA Barcode App could make playing Noah really easy, and taxonomy cool again. Just walk around the forest, scan animals and plants, and if they are not listed, it is your unique chance to name a new species. But sorry to say, Carmenelectra shechisme, Han solo, Oedipus complex or La cerveza are already taken.

First Published:ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity, News, 15.5.2013

Also Published on Saturday, 25 May 2013 16:41, Written by Philipp Gassner / Special to the BusinessMirror