[Taxacom] Yanega on EOL and undiscovered biodiversity

Bob Mesibov mesibov at southcom.com.au
Tue Sep 11 19:30:10 CDT 2007


I may indeed be underestimating just how much of Wilson's 90% is already
in collections (but see below). What I can legitimately ask, however, is
how broad a sample of the world's biodiversity, taxonomically speaking,
can ever appear in malaise traps or other "cost-efficient" collectors.

I can also ask something about range sizes and vagility: what proportion
of the world's narrow-range, poorly dispersing taxa - the taxa that
disappear, absolutely, when the bulldozers/ploughs/trawl-nets are
finished their work - will ever appear in cost-efficient malaise traps?

I'm not disputing the need for taxonomists to work up what's already in
collections, and it would be wonderful to learn that EOL and other
compilation projects were going to fund this work in a big way. But I'm
not going to learn that, am I?

I'm also not disputing (and I'm getting a bit tired of hearing this)
that bioinformatics tools make taxonomy much more efficient. I use those
tools every day, and if you check my signature you'll find ample
evidence that I make the results of that use available 24/7 to the

I *am* disputing the notion that the time made available by use of those
tools will be spent by taxonomists to significantly increase field
effort. As I said in an earlier post, it sounds great but I want to see
the numbers, especially for those working full-time in museums and
government agencies.

My own case may be of interest. For nearly 20 years I've averaged 1 day
a week in the field, a proportion I've only been able to maintain by
working part-time and (more recently) retiring. It hasn't become 2 days
a week as a result of my increasing use of GIS, databases, Web tools and
imaging software over the years. It's stayed at 1 day a week, but the
other 4 days have become far more productive.

Am I that different? Would other taxonomists not spend their
tools-liberated time more *efficiently* working up what's already in
collections? It's cheaper and easier than fieldwork.

You wrote:

"You apparently believe field work is the limiting factor for
biodiversity, but it is NOT. We have collected enough material in the 
last decade, all on hand NOW, to keep armies of taxonomists busy for 
20 years."

You seem to be missing both my point and Wilson's. Fieldwork is the
limiting factor for documenting the biodiversity that is *not* in
collections, and that is rapidly disappearing in many places around the
world. If you're prepared to say that what's in collections now is all
the world needs to know about biodiversity, and the rest we can forget
about, then you don't have much common ground with either me or Prof

There are very large *unsampled* bits of Earth whose biota is being
wiped out. Those bits are easily identified by overlaying collection
sources and "being wiped out" spatial data. It's an indoors job. When
it's done, we need fieldwork, and a lot of it.

Finally, a comment on "what's already in collections". It has to be a
very partial comment, because neither I nor anyone else has any idea
what the true proportion is for the world's biota. My expertise is in
eastern Australian polydesmidan millipedes, which are terrestrial and
typically poor-dispersing, narrow-range endemics (where they're not
invasive), easily wiped out by habitat disturbance. They can most
efficiently be sampled by hand-collecting:

Mesibov, R., Taylor, R.J. and Brereton, R. N. 1995. Relative efficiency
of pitfall trapping and hand-collecting from plots for sampling of
millipedes. Biodiversity and Conservation 4: 429-439.

I've been through the various Australian collections, including bulk
samples, so I have a good idea of what species can be regarded as
"known". My fieldwork has already increased the number of known species
by about one quarter, and I've so far searched less than 5% of eastern
Dr Robert Mesibov
Honorary Research Associate, Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery
and School of Zoology, University of Tasmania
Contact: PO Box 101, Penguin, Tasmania, Australia 7316
(03) 64371195; 61 3 64371195

Australian millipedes checklist
Tasmanian multipedes
Spatial data basics for Tasmania
Biodiversity salvage blog

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