[Taxacom] Economist leader addressed to taxonomists

Frederick W. Schueler bckcdb at istar.ca
Thu May 17 22:30:22 CDT 2007

Barry Roth wrote:
> No cheer here, thank you.  Small wonder taxonomists are underfunded when there are perceptions like this in the world "out there".  And guaranteed, more Decision Makers read The Economist than scan Systematic Biology.  I hope that some taxacomers more eloquent than I will send in their rebuttals.  I'll try too, but right now my vision is clouded by anger and disgust.

> colin favret <crf at uiuc.edu> wrote:
>  I thought this editorial on species inflation might be of interest to some here. cheer, colin
> http://www.economist.com/opinion/displaystory.cfm?story_id=9191545
* well, here's a less ignorant take from a mainstream newspaper:

Subject: Press: The Trouble With Taxonomy
Date: Mon, 14 May 2007 10:27:11 -0400
From: <VONPAPINEAU.WB at forces.gc.ca>
To: <bckcdb at istar.ca>

GLOBE AND MAIL (Toronto, Ontario) 12 May 07  The Trouble With Taxonomy- 
Cataloguing the wild kingdom Scientists have named about 1.8 million 
species - including new discoveries such as the clouded leopard and a 
Tanzanian monkey. But as Zoe Cormier reports, that leaves about 90 per 
cent of life on the planet a mystery. One big hitch? Defining what 
exactly makes a species a species  (Zoe Cormier)

Ten years ago, Harvard naturalist Edward O. Wilson estimated that 30,000 
species were going extinct every year. Now, scientists are taking an 
even darker view. According to the World Conservation Union's latest Red 
List, a staggering one in eight birds, one in four mammals and one in 
three amphibians are threatened with annihilation.
And by the end of the century (because of climate change) species could 
disappear at 10,000 times the natural rate.
But thousands of new species are also being identified each year.
A case in point: the clouded leopard of Borneo and Sumatra. This spring, 
biologists examined the DNA of the 40-pound, three-foot predator for the 
first time in 100 years. Previously thought to be members of the same 
species as clouded leopards from mainland Asia, they found that the 
Borneo feline has at least 40 unique genetic traits - which makes the 
two cats as different as lions are from tigers.
Borneo, in fact, is a hotbed of biological discovery. Like the Amazon 
and the African Congo, the "Heart of Borneo" - a plot of rain forest the 
size of Kansas - is unusually diverse. On 9.7 hectares, for example, 
there are about 700 different species of trees, as many as exist in all 
of North America. And in 2006 alone, scientists identified 30 new 
species of fish, 16 species of ginger, two tree frogs and three new 
trees in Borneo's rain forest.
Meanwhile, collections manager William Stanley and his colleagues at the 
Field Museum in Chicago not only discovered a new species - they 
identified an entirely new genus. Originally, scientists classified the 
kipunji monkey as a kind of mangabey. Then a Tanzanian farmer found one 
of the monkeys (formerly seen only in photos) dead in a trap. Closer 
analysis revealed that it was the first new African monkey genus 
described in 80 years. "It was mind-blowing," says Mr. Stanley of his 
team's 2005 findings.
And yet discoveries like these merely scratch the surface of life on the 
planet. In all, researchers have named about 1.8 million species - which 
leaves five million to 30 million species unclassified.
Or, depending on where in that broad range scientists stake their 
claims, 90 per cent of species to go.
Of course, part of the problem is simply finding species that live deep 
in the ocean, on inaccessible land or in erratic (read: elusive) habits. 
But there is also another big hurdle to cataloguing even the species 
already known to exist - the tricky nature of taxonomy.
The question of exactly what makes a species a species is a hotly 
debated topic among evolutionary biologists. The widely accepted 
definition is that if two creatures can breed and produce fertile 
offspring, then they are members of the same species. For instance, 
horses and donkeys can breed, but their offspring - mules - are sterile. 
Hence, donkeys and horses are different species.
But this rule of thumb doesn't always ring true. Lions and tigers, for 
example, can occasionally produce fertile young. And plants and life 
forms such as bacteria interbreed all the time. "We'll never have one 
universal criterion by which all specimens may be unambiguously placed 
in a single species," says Daniel Brooks, a parasite taxonomist at the 
University of Toronto.
	Nonetheless, Prof. Brooks has personally identified hundreds of new 
species (he admits he lost count a long time ago). "If I've got four or 
five traits that are different, then I feel better about saying this is 
a new species," he says.
But it's a slow process. It can take years of scrutinizing the 
creature's anatomy and comparing it with everything else known to 
science in order to figure out if something truly distinct has been 
found. Until then, specimens have been known to sit in drawers for more 
than 50 years before being identified as a new species.
However, a new genetic test known as "DNA barcoding" is helping to speed 
things up. Developed at the University of Guelph by evolutionary 
biologist Paul Hebert, the test allows scientists to quickly -- and 
cheaply -- create a numerical "barcode" for a species.
The test works by giving a gene known as CO{-1} (found in slightly 
different forms in all living things) a numerical code about 650 digits 
long. This can then be easily compared to other species' "barcodes" for 
that same gene. A match of 97.5 per cent or less between two specimens 
generally indicates that they are different species.
	Using this method, Prof. Hebert and his colleagues found 15 previously 
unknown North American bird species when they sorted through the 690 
known species. In total, "we've probably revealed about 3,000 overlooked 
species," he says.
	Scientific curiosity aside, however, exactly why should we go to the 
trouble of logging every species on Earth? Does it really matter if we 
know the name and identity of every bug, every slime mould, every 
parasitic worm? "Most people don't lie awake at night and worry about 
the species count of the planet - but they do worry about where their 
tax dollars are spent," Prof. Hebert says. We spend billions every year 
on controlling pest species, and combatting the bacteria and viruses 
that make us sick. The wrong information can mean wasting money trying 
to kill the wrong insect. Or it could kill a patient by misdiagnosing an 
	Classification is also key to conservation. For example, now that the 
clouded leopard - Borneo's top predator - is considered a separate 
species, World Wildlife Federation representatives say it will emphasize 
the importance of preserving the "Heart of Borneo" - perhaps bolstering 
an agreement reached in February by Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei to 
take care of this unique stretch of land.
"No name, no information. It's that simple and that critical.
We have to know as many species as possible in order to make rational 
decisions about how to cope with environmental change," U of T's Prof. 
Brooks says.
"Unfortunately, we're probably naming new species slower than new 
species are going extinct." Classification 101 Domain, kingdom, phylum, 
class . . . Remember these terms from junior high school biology? All 
life on Earth can be organized based on this system - which dates back 
to the work of 18th-century Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus. He 
recognized that different organisms could be grouped based on shared 
characteristics. As for the sticky details (and the endless designation 
of subfamilies and suborders and subphyla), that continues to be a 
controversial topic among academics. Still, this system of 
classification has been used for hundreds of years as a consistent way 
to take any species and slot it into the tree of life. Take the clouded 
leopard of  Borneo: Species: Neofelis diardi - Bornean clouded leopard 
Genus: Neofelis - all clouded leopards Family: Felidae - all cats Order: 
Carnivora - dogs, cats, seals, bears and other carnivores Class: 
Mammalia - all mammals Phylum: Chordata - all creatures with some kind 
of backbone, including all vertebrates and a few invertebrates Kingdom: 
Animalia - all animals, as opposed to plants or fungi, etc.
Domain: Eukarya - creatures possessing cells with membrane-bound 
organelles, as opposed to prokarya such as bacteria Zoe Cormier YETI 
CRAB Official name Kiwa hirsuta Official coming out March, 2006 Like 
many new species, this one was found deep in the ocean - 2,300 metres 
down, to be exact, near a hydrothermal vent in the south Pacific. And 
like most deep-sea animals, its a weird one: It has almost completely 
lost its eyes, its claws are covered in blond hairs (hence its 
nickname), and living in those hairs are bacteria, whose purpose remains 
a mystery. The creature is so unlike any lobster or crab seen before 
that researchers have placed it in a new family called kiwaidae.
THE SMALLEST FISH Official name Paedocypris progenetica Official coming 
out January, 2006 Biologists first collected specimens of this fish from 
the acidic peat swamps of Sumatra more than 10 years ago. But before 
publishing their findings, they wanted to be sure that it wasn't just a 
new species, but also the smallest fish in the world - beating out the 
1.2 centimetre-long dwarf goby. Measuring less than eight millimetres, 
this distant relative of the carp is, in fact, the planet's smallest 
known creature with a backbone.
SNUBFIN DOLPHIN Official name Orcaella heinsohni Official coming out 
July, 2005 The first new dolphin species to be discovered since 1956, 
the snubfin was previously thought to be a kind of irrawaddy, a grey and 
white dolphin that lives along the coasts and estuaries of Australia and 
southeast Asia. But researchers had long suspected that they may be a 
new species, because of their unique coloration (white, brown and dark 
grey). They used DNA-typing methods to confirm their hunch.
ROCK RAT Official name Laonastes aenigmamus Official coming out May 2005 
American scientists first encountered the kha-nyou (or rock rat) in the 
late 1990s on sale as bush meat in rural markets in Laos.
	And it has still not been seen alive by biologists. With a rat-like 
body about a foot long and a bushy tail like a squirrel, the rodent 
seemed to defy classification. Biologists at first placed it in an 
entirely new family. Now, however, it seems that the rock rat is 
actually a member of a family of rodents thought to be extinct - making 
it the latest example of the "Lazarus effect," a species that appears to 
have come back from the dead.
Zoe Cormier is a National Magazine Award nominee who writes from London.

            Bishops Mills Natural History Centre
Frederick W. Schueler, Aleta Karstad, Jennifer Helene Schueler
       RR#2 Bishops Mills, Ontario, Canada K0G 1T0
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