[Taxacom] Moorea barcode project

Thompson, Chris Chris.Thompson at ARS.USDA.GOV
Tue Dec 11 13:35:15 CST 2007


Yes, Doug, but ...

Remember your Goethe ["Wer immer strebend sich bemueht"]

Yes, we need to take what we can get, be thankful, and then try our best
to do it all.

And as soon as George sends me my airplane ticket, I will deliver him
the TOTAL flower fly fauna. I promise I will do it and not as Neal
Evenhius declares blame it on my dog!

Cheer,

F. Christian Thompson
Systematic Entomology Lab., ARS, USDA
c/o Smithsonian Institution MRC-0169
PO Box 37012
Washington, D. C. 20013-7012
(202) 382-1800 voice
(202) 786-9422 fax
www.diptera.org Diptera Website

-----Original Message-----
From: taxacom-bounces at mailman.nhm.ku.edu
[mailto:taxacom-bounces at mailman.nhm.ku.edu] On Behalf Of Doug Yanega
Sent: Tuesday, December 11, 2007 2:12 PM
To: TAXACOM at mailman.nhm.ku.edu
Subject: Re: [Taxacom] Moorea barcode project

Geoff Read wrote:

>A press release:
>
>http://www.berkeley.edu/news/media/releases/2007/12/06_moorea.shtml
>
>""We're constructing a library of genetic markers and physical 
>identifiers for every species of plant, animal and fungi on the 
>island ..." (and underwater)
>
>Every species? Good luck to them with proving that.

Don't forget that in colloquial English, "animal" is synonymous with 
"vertebrate". As long as they barcode every vertebrate, even if they 
only accomplish a fraction of the remainder of Animalia, they can 
hang a "Mission Accomplished" banner and not many people will object. 
;-)

In all seriousness, though (I'm sure that the effort is sincere, and 
I'm trying not to be glib), I expect they also intended to imply 
"every DESCRIBED species", but this is also a mighty large loophole, 
as would also be true if they'd said "every MORPHOspecies". Who 
besides a taxonomist familiar with the fauna is going to notice if 
several thousand (mostly undescribed) arthropods are not sampled? Or 
- as seems more likely - if several thousand undescribed taxa ARE 
sampled, but not given names, or if most of the invertebrates simply 
remain unidentified beyond the family or genus level, would anyone 
object to this?

As it stands, the Moorea Biocode database 
(http://bscit.berkeley.edu/biocode/Browse.html) has less than half 
its insects (some 2400 specimens total) identified to species level 
(and lots of typos). One of the most diverse of all insect groups, 
the parasitic Hymenoptera, which should have at least 1000+ species 
on an island that size, are represented by only 53 specimens, with 
only one species name. At least at this stage, they appear content 
with having taxa sorted only to morphospecies, and only IDed to genus 
or family (or Order - almost half the Hymenoptera and Lepidoptera are 
not even IDed to family, and well over half the Diptera). Counting 
unidentified taxa towards the total may look okay on paper, but it's 
not scientifically very satisfying. One would assume that their goal 
is to improve on this, but regardless - and as Geoff implies - it is 
patently impossible to get every species on the island sampled, let 
alone getting every sampled specimen identified, if only because 
there simply aren't enough taxonomists capable of IDing Polynesian 
arthropods.

The bottom line is this: given that we all know it is absolutely 
*impossible* to fully document the arthropod fauna of any diverse 
terrestrial area in anything less than a human lifetime or two or 
three (involving the efforts of literally hundreds of taxonomists), 
how the heck is one supposed to write one's press releases so they 
can be both literally accurate and NOT reveal just how uncomfortably 
short of "ideal" one's efforts are inevitably going to be? The folks 
involved in the Moorea Biocode project - to be as sympathetic as 
possible - faced this dilemma, and chose to propose a goal that 
cannot realistically be accomplished as proposed. But did they have a 
choice? If there's going to be any debate here, I believe it's this 
question that we need to consider: is it better to overstate one's 
expectations, get millions of dollars in funding, and simply get as 
much done as is actually practical once that money is in hand - 
regardless of how big the shortfall at the end of the project - or to 
be honest that we can never get a handle on the world's arthropods, 
and hope that biodiversity projects will be funded anyway? Are 
funding agencies likely to stop funding "total fauna" projects when 
it becomes clear that no one can EVER actually complete them? Will 
anyone besides the scientists themselves know or *care* about the 
magnitude of the shortfalls, or will everyone still be content even 
if they *do* know the arthropods weren't completely surveyed? Are 
people likely to start *excluding* arthropods from biodiversity 
studies so they can sidestep the issue?

It's not exactly a simple set of questions, is it?

Peace,
-- 

Doug Yanega        Dept. of Entomology         Entomology Research
Museum
Univ. of California, Riverside, CA 92521-0314        skype: dyanega
phone: (951) 827-4315 (standard disclaimer: opinions are mine, not
UCR's)
              http://cache.ucr.edu/~heraty/yanega.html
   "There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness
         is the true method" - Herman Melville, Moby Dick, Chap. 82

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