Silent Spring

Paulo Petry fishnwine at CHARTER.NET
Mon Jan 30 11:50:34 CST 2006

I'd like to make a point about how numbers can be distorted.

The BBC article states the following:
"In 2004, WWF reported that biodiversity in the world's fresh water
habitats halved between 1970 and 2000.
This makes fresh water the most threatened of the world's natural
resources, more threatened even than tropical forest."

The 2004 Living Planet Report states that the freshwater "index" has
dropped by about 50%. That does not mean 50% of species loss over this
time period, since the index is largely based on decline of population
sizes, not extinctions. For those interested, the report is online at

That said, I'd like to make the observation that most conservation
efforts at large scale these days are integrating terrestrial and
aquatic  systems. There is no viable freshwater habitat without the
functioning surrounding terrestrial landscape. Although freshwater
systems have been grossly neglected globally in the past, and are in
jeopardy in many areas of this planet, considerable long term
conservation strategies at continental scale are being implemented
taking into consideration the best return for the conservation of both
terrestrial and aquatic systems.  This is the ball game that we should
try to promote.

We can not get caught in a doomsday syndrome and just watch the circus
go up in flames (I hate the idea of burning books, I'd rather see clown
costumes burning ...).  To make a difference, conservation entities and
systematists/taxonomists have to work together to maximize the return in
terms of higher probability of maintenance of the overall biodiversity.
It is our responsibility to engage in this game and provide the best
information possible to allow for the best allocation of resources by
conservation efforts.  We are the ones with the analytical tools and
real primary data on biodiversity that can provide the basis for an
integrated conservation effort.

If we follow suit in the mode suggested by the BBC article and become
casualties accountants, then we are really wasting out time.

As Rich wisely stated, we need to help in the creation of safe vaults.
The big questions that we can help to answer are: how many, how big and
where do these vaults have to be placed to ensure a minimum of desired

By the way, during the last 4 years I have been working on the
assessment of the freshwater ecoregions for South America, during this
times 324 new species of freshwater fishes were described for SA, an
average of 81/yr. That shows how much work we still have in front of us,
and how many rare gems are still out there.

Best Fishes,


Richard Pyle wrote:

>>Conservationists are mistaken, argues Professor Tim Halliday in
>>this week's
>>Green Room; many animals and plants cannot be saved from
>>extinction, and the
>>job of conservation scientists is to document them as they disappear.
> I think our job as biologists/taxonomists/conservations is really twofold:
> 1) Protect species from human-induced extinction wherever its practical and
> feasible to do so (usually in the form of protected habitat; not
> disproportionately expensive efforts to save charistmatic individual
> species), acknowledging that we can't save everything, and further
> acknowledging that for every lost species we know about, there may be many
> others we don't know about, because we never knew they existed in the first
> place; and
> 2) Do whatever we can to expand our knowledge of what is "out there", so we
> at least have the knowledge that it once existed at all (and perhaps even
> have a tissue sample of a number of representative individuals, so that
> future generations will be able to read their complete genomes).
> A couple years ago, I posted to this list a metaphor of global biodiversity
> as a great Roman library, which has among its shelves a collection of books
> containing the total accumulated wisdom on Earth.  The library is burning
> (in many different places), and books are being lost.  We have a finite
> number of Roman soldiers to try to save the books.  One approach is to use
> every last soldier to carry buckets of water into the library, to extinguish
> the blaze.  Another approach divides the soldiers, with some carrying
> buckets of water to specific sections of the library containing many unique
> and valuable books and where the fire has a chance of being contained; while
> the other soldiers are running through the library grabbing a few
> representative copies of each book from a wide array of library sections
> (noting basic information about where they were found, and what other books
> were nearby, etc.), and carrying them to a vault across the street.
> The books are species, and the soldiers represent biodollars -- with the
> bucket-carriers representing funding for conservation, and the "runners" are
> funding for collecting and alpha taxonomy (i.e., supporting the frantic
> effort of trying to document species by placing representative samples of
> them in the "vaults" of natural history museums).
> When non-biologists ask me why it's important to save biodiversity, I begin
> by describing it in terms of a library -- containing tens of millions of
> different books, which represent the accumulated "wisdom" of three and a
> half billion years of editing and re-editing. The information contained in
> these books holds many, many secrets; their value to human civilization
> vastly exceeding whatever information was contained in the library at
> Alexandria.  The value of some of the secrets is obvious -- things like how
> to convert sunlight energy with fantasitc efficiency. Others are completely
> unknown to us now, but may eventually prove to be unimaginably powerful and
> benefical to humanity (nanotechnology to the extreme -- incredible molecular
> machines).
> Until recently, we were like a bunch of chimpanzees living in the Library of
> Congress -- totally unaware of the vastness of information surrounding us.
> At this moment in history, we are more like first-grade school children
> wandering up and down the aisles.  We have only recently started to learn to
> read a few words in a few books; but the vast majority of the information is
> well beyond our comprehension, and is stored on shelves out of our reach
> (i.e., species yet undiscovered).
> Some day, we will be able to read the pages of all those books with the
> insight of a Shakespearian scholar; catching the hidden meaning, subtle
> nuances, and implications contained therein. Wouldn't it be a tragedy of
> epic proportions if, when that day comes, most of the books are already gone
> wihout a trace?
> So yes, let us continue to throw buckets of water on the burning library.
> But the way things seem to be heading (and I think the main point of
> Halliday's article), the fire is burning out of control, and all the Roman
> soldiers in the world aren't likely to put it out before a lot of books are
> lost forever. So while we continue to fight the good fire-fight, let's also
> put a little more emphasis on documenting what books are in there, and
> getting some samples stored safely in a vault, where future generations will
> be able to read them, and know they existed. Then maybe (just maybe) someday
> our great grand children will be able to rebuild many of the more important
> parts of the library.
> Aloha,
> Rich
> Richard L. Pyle, PhD
> Database Coordinator for Natural Sciences
>   and Associate Zoologist in Ichthyology
> Department of Natural Sciences, Bishop Museum
> 1525 Bernice St., Honolulu, HI 96817
> Ph: (808)848-4115, Fax: (808)847-8252
> email: deepreef at

Figure 1- Tambaqui feeding on fruits from the flooded forest
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                 Neotropical Ichthyology
Associate in Ichthyology, MCZ-Harvard University
The Nature Conservancy - South American Conservation Program

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