"arcane" rules/was gender of -opsis

Richard Pyle deepreef at BISHOPMUSEUM.ORG
Tue Aug 20 13:59:07 CDT 2002

> >with the primary goal being to streamline the process without
> >compromising the integrity of the information.
> and/or to (1) streamline the processes of preserving the biodiversity
> itself and
> (2) collect enough specimens of existing global biodiversity in an
> organized manner so that future analysts will have optimal amounts of
> info., other than fossils, to analyze, nomenclatorially, genetically, and
> otherwise.

I'm not sure you realize how passionately I agree with you on this!  My
initial post was about ICZN Code & Nomenclature issues, but on the much
larger issue of long-term preservation of biodiversity, I think the value of
carefully preserved specimens is grossly underappreciated.

In my discussions elsewhere pertaining to creating a global inventory of
life on Earth (e.g., All-Species Inventory), I have maintained (and feel
that I can defend) the idea that, given a choice between collecting and
preserving samples of 75% of Earth's "species" (by whatever definition), all
of which are fully named, documented, vouchered, and
cladistically/systematically placed within the Tree of Life with high
confidence; versus collecting and preserving representatives of nearly 100%
of Earth's species, only 50% (or even 25%) of which are so documented; the
latter represents the greater contribution to future humanity and long-term
biodiversity preservation.

Obviously, these are not mutually exclusive alternatives, because in order
to achieve confidence that our collected samples are actually approaching
the representation of 100% of species, we'll need to be understanding the
evolutionary context of the ones we've already got.

The point is a more abstract one; which basically boils down to the
potential future value of having captured the broadest diversity of
sequencable DNA diversity, before extinction beats us to it.

> I submit that the most important information persistence, quantitatively
> and qualitatively, is live biodiversity persistence.

Therein lies a fundamental question, that as yet has not been answered (to
my satisfaction, at least).  In the sentence above, you note "live
biodiversity" -- implying the preservation of living organisms, presumably
via conservation of their natural habitat.  In your point 2 above, however,
you are referring to collected specimens (which usually means they are no
longer among the living, but rather are represented as carefully preserved
organisms or tissue samples in Museums and other natural history

This is representative of the more general question of which is more
important to the long-term survival of Earth's biodiversity:
conserving/protecting natural habitat, or completing comprehensive species
inventories?  Nobody would argue that conserving the natural habitat is not
the superior means of capturing the most meaningful aspects of
biodiversity -- which goes well beyond DNA sequences to include community
structure, ecological interactions, etc.  The question has more to do with
striking a balance for short-term preservation, versus long-term
preservation; given limited resources and the predicted inevitability of
continued extinction on a global scale.

I'll briefly summarize the metaphor that I use to illustrate this issue:

Imagine all the world's knowledge is contained within the pages of books in
a single library.  There are only a few copies of maybe 10% of the books
anywhere else outside this one library.  If we lose the library, we lose the
vast majority of all knowledge throughout human history.  The Library is on
fire, and the books are burning.  We have only a 100 volunteers to address
the problem, and we want to use them optimally to save the knowledge that
the library contains.

One approach is to have all 100 volunteers run with buckets of water to
battle the fire.  Some areas are burning worse than others, and based on our
limited understanding of the library contents (only 10% or less of the card
catalog is complete), we do our best to focus the efforts of the volunteers
on those parts of the library where the fire is raging the most, and where
we think the most valuable/diverse sets of books are located.

All indications seem to be that the prospects for putting out the fire
entirely are not good.  New sections are catching fire all throughout the
library, and despite the best efforts of our volunteers running with buckets
(who are certainly saving some books in some sections), overall the fire
appears to be winning.

An alternative approach is to leave half of the volunteers to the task of
running buckets as best they can, and organize the other half of them to run
through the library and grab samples of as many different books as possible,
and take them outside the library to be stored inside a fire-proof vault
across the street.  They're not grabbing every copy of each book -- just one
or two copies of each.  In the vault, a few other volunteers are keeping
track of which sections and which shelves each book came from, as well as
rough estimations of how many copies of each book there were, and which
other books were on adjacent shelves.

No matter which approach is taken, the fire will eventually burn itself out.
The question is, which of the two approaches outlined above will maximally
increase the prospects of restoring the library (or at least understanding
what the library once contained)?  The first approach will definitely
preserve more of the original books in the context of the original
library -- probably twice as many as would be saved by the second approach.
But the second approach still gives us the contents of that vault across the
street, which we wouldn't have had if we'd put all of our volunteers on the
task of directly fighting the fire.  Maybe, eventually, the printing press
will be invented, and then later, perhaps, high-speed digital scanning and
printing technology. Armed with such technology, the books in the vault can
be copied and reproduced in large quantities.  With basic knowledge about
where the books were originally located inside the library, it's conceivable
that much of the original library could eventually be restored.

Which approach leads us to the optimal long-term prospects for knowledge
preservation and restoration depends on many factors, such as how quickly
the fire is winning (and predictions of its long-term future prospects), how
likely it is that technology will eventually allow the library to be
restored based on the vault contents, how capable we are at correctly
identifying the most important sections of the library (based on out 10%
card catalog), what the ratio of books saved per volunteer fire-fighter,
versus books transferred to the vault per volunteer inventory taker...etc.,

So....the Library represents natural habitat on Planet Earth; the books
represent biodiversity (their contents represent DNA sequences); the fire
represents habitat destruction and associated extinction; the volunteers
represent a limited resource (e.g., biodollars); and the vault across the
street represents Natural History collections with their carefully preserved
specimens.  The first approach puts all emphasis on habitat conservation
(e.g., preserving the "live biodiversity"), whereas the second approach
balances the emphasis on conservation and species inventory.

Getting back to Steve's point about specimens -- I tend to think that
populating the "vault" with specimens is one of the most important
contributions to human society that taxonomists have made/are making --
especially in light of the rather grim prospects for extinction rates over
the next 10-1000 years. In the short-term, the inventory effort will also
continue to sharpen our understanding of which sections of the "library" are
truly the most important/unique, and thus will help re-focus conservation
efforts more intelligently.

The ultimate question is: ten, a hundred, or a thousand years from now,
which of the two approaches will be perceived as having been the wiser?


Richard L. Pyle
Ichthyology, Bishop Museum
1525 Bernice St., Honolulu, HI 96817
Ph: (808)848-4115, Fax: (808)847-8252
email: deepreef at bishopmuseum.org
"The opinions expressed are those of the sender, and not necessarily those
of Bishop Museum."

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