What are we going to do about this?

John Shuey Shueyi at AOL.COM
Wed Oct 23 14:39:42 CDT 1996

In a message dated 96-10-21 17:19:37 EDT, Doug Yanega writes:

<<  popular non-profit institutions that support biological
 research (e.g. Nature Conservancy, WWF, etc.); is it possible to convince
 any of these to set aside "biodiversity money" specifically targeted for
 alpha taxonomy, or would we be forced to go a-begging from the public and
 the concerned commercial interests (e.g. agriculture paying for insect
 and plant taxonomy, pharmaceutical companies likewise) on our own? How
 does one drum up money in the first place? Tap a few wealthy celebrities
 and start an endowment? Heck, the *interest* on two months' salary for
 Michael Jordan could support a taxonomist in perpetuity...it'd be a
 return to the old Victorian model of wealthy patrons. The topic of naming
 species for pay has been raised here before, too, and we perhaps can
 steer clear of it for now - maybe we can at least agree that for ethical
 reasons alone, it would probably be a last resort (although it would
 certainly do wonders for entomological systematics!) ;-) >>

As a Nature Conservancy scientist,  conservation biologist, and spare-time
alpha taxonomist, I can
provide some insight to the funding of  taxonomy as it relates to
_protecting_ biodiversity.  The
Indiana Office of  The Nature Conservancy has gone out of its way to support
work by
taxonomists over the last few years, using small grants and research monies
to fund projects
ranging from US$6k to US$24k.  But the catch is, we are supporting
taxonomists, not taxonomy
(at least so far - I'll explain  our possible new funding directions later).
  The thing to keep in mind
when thinking about The Conservancy and other similar organizations, is that
we are
results/action oriented  and guided by well defined and stable missions.  In
 the case of The
Conservancy, the Mission is as follows:

"... to preserve plants, animals and natural communities that represent the
diversity of life on Earth
by protecting the lands and waters the need to survive."

Hopefully, every TNC employee evaluates every decision in light of that
mission - I know I do.
Adhering to a strict interpretation of this mission is both constraining and
liberating, it keeps me
focused and secure in the knowlege that the vast majority of our actions are
positive steps
towards positive goals.  Hence, when I fund taxonomists to work for our
office, I fund applied
research which provides the information I need to make better conservation
decisions.  For
example, I'm writing a proposal today that will allow us to look at all
species of Lepidoptera in
oak barrens communities as well as adjacent disturbed habitats.  The goal is
not to develop a "list
of species", but rather to gauge the proportion of the community that
requires high-quality natural
habitats for their very survival in this particular region.  The next logical
step of this work will be
to look at life history traits and the population structure of some of the
restricted species, in order
to provide insights into habitat management and preserve design.  This
information will then be
directly translated into decisions about land protection and purchase.  Thus,
this research will help
support a taxonomist directly, but taxonomy only indirectly.

Likewise, we have a two-year effort ongoing involving a scud taxonomist who
is performing cave
inventories in southern Indiana.  He is sampling the entire cave invertebrate
community at each
site, and we will ultimately use the information to identify cave systems
that maximize our
bang-for-the-buck.  The area is highly endemic, but has hundreds of known
caves with thousands
of known entrances.  We must select 10 or less of those systems to protect as
our first step
towards developing a strategy which will allow us to move towards achieving
TNC's goal.

Of taxonomic note, many of the cave species are undescribed.  This really
doesn't bother me too
much.  I can protect a species with or without a name, as long as it has
enough underlying
taxonomy to get us to the morpho-species stage.  But, in the Midwestern US,
new species are
sexy, especially species that we can tout as "found nowhere else on earth".
 I can sell this to
foundations and individuals to receive funding that can be directly
translated into protecting cave
systems - and that's my job.  So, I may be soon offering a "bounty" of US$1k
or so per species for
refereed papers describing a subset of these species - not much but enough to
motivate many an
underfunded taxonomist.  From my perspective, this is an investment in fund
raising as much as an
investment in limited scope taxonomy.

As I move between the worlds of basic science in academia and the business of
biodiversity, it has become apparent that there is a fundamental
misunderstanding between the
two schools.  I worship biodiversity, and the complex array of species that
inhabit our planet.  But
waiting for every species to be described before attempting to save
biodiversity is not an option.
Conservation implementers need information NOW that will allow us to know
where and how
limited resources are best spent.  To guide those efforts, we rely on
estimates of relative rarity at
the species level, (and at the coarser level- botanical community type for
traditional terrestrial
efforts).  We are always trying to put data into the proper context.  Thus a
list of weevils,
sawflies, you name it, from a given site generally tells me nothing.  Even a
comparison of forest A
versus forest B tell me little.  Forest B may support 50% more species of a
given group, but my
question will always remain, are those species at risk, or are there just 50%
landscape-dwelling species at that site.  Given my limited resources, I
already have sites known to
harbor  imperiled taxa, and simple species lists with no context will not
allow me to risk scarce
resources to a protect a potentially generic site.

Thus my point, and I do have one, is this.  Conservation organizations will
likely become stable
funding sources for taxonomists only when taxonomists figure out what it is
that we need and
what our constraints are.  Quite a few have figured this out and are working
on a regular basis
with private and public conservation funding.  To others, this slip into the
dirty little world of
applied  research may simply not be acceptable, and that's ok too.  But quit
wondering why there
has never been a conservation area developed to protect that amazing species
of Obscuridae you
described a few years back.  It ain't gonna happen out of context.  But I
anxiously await to hear
from anyone who is interested in helping to protect biodiversity in addition
to studying it.

And remember the golden rule: he who has it sets them.  This is the reality
of funding in every

John Shuey
Diector of Science and Conservation Biology
The Indiana Office of The Nature Conservancy

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