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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

A Little Known Planet, Part 3

Air Date: Week of December 12, 2003

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We've heard how both researchers and the lay public can help count up the earth's creatures. Now, in the final segment of Living on Earth’s special, we'll see how technology is helping to speed up the identification of species. But first, we’ll see how things were done the old fashioned way. And for that, Living on Earth's Diane Toomey returns us to famed Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson.

Transcript

CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living on Earth and our special “A Little Known Planet.” I'm Steve Curwood. We've heard how both researchers and the lay public can help count up the earth's creatures. Now, we'll see how technology is helping to speed up the identification of species. But first, Living on Earth's Diane Toomey takes us back to Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson to see how things were done the old-fashioned way.

WILSON: I have to bring this up a bit. And now the specimen is in view at a relatively low magnification.

TOOMEY: The core of Dr. Wilson's book on pheidole ants is his detailed line drawings that fill most of its oversized pages. They serve to document the physical characteristics that separate one species from another and allow other taxonomists to compare specimens of their own.

WILSON: And I’m going to bring up the magnification now, so that we can see the specimen at about the magnification I frequently use to make the drawings.

TOOMEY: So using a number 1 pencil, Dr. Wilson made more than five thousand drawings of soldier and worker ants from various angles – the top, side, the front. And that meant hours of peering into a microscope.

WILSON: And I will line it up for you to look at, and now you will be able to see this specimen yourself as you peek through. Can you see it?

TOOMEY: Oh my!

WILSON: You can see the micrometer there.

TOOMEY: A yellow ant sits under a grid that makes the insect easier to draw. I'm staring at Pheidole caltrop, from Panama. At this magnification, its head is spectacularly, hideously, large and a dark, lifeless eye – does the eye of an ant ever look otherwise? – stares back at me.

WILSON: It’s possible then to work off that image and to examine it from every angle.

TOOMEY: The little hairs are quite visible.

WILSON: You know, for a lot of people they see one ant and they think they’ve seen them all. Certainly when they’ve seen one pheidole they think they’re seen them all. But in fact, how long those hairs are, how abundant they are on different parts of the body, the direction they take, whether they stand straight up or they’re oblique or whatever, all of these things go into the description. And I’ve represented them in the drawing, and they allow you to tell these apart at a glance.

TOOMEY: It did occur to me, looking at these amazingly detailed, fine drawings, that in order to be a good scientist, one had to be an illustrator.

HarrisonFordi, named in honor of Harrison Ford for “his contribution in service and support to tropical conservation.” (Photo by Sarah Ashworth, © Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University.)

  

Pheidole hirsuta, found in Costa Rica. Drawing by E.O. Wilson. (Photo by Sarah Ashworth, © Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University.)

WILSON: That’s true also. I’m no artist, but I’m a moderately good illustrator. And so I realized that I wasn’t going to climb this Mount Everest of ant taxonomy unless I just put a large amount of personal effort into the drawing. This was the knitting part of my work.

TOOMEY: Yes, you heard right. Knitting. That’s the leisure activity to which Dr. Wilson compares his hours of drawing. At that point I realize I have something in common with one of the world’s most famous scientists. So I ask him….

TOOMEY: I knit a bit, and there is something very meditative about the process. And so I’m wondering if you also found a certain meditative quality to this exercise.

WILSON: An excellent question and the answer is yes. Those many, many hours at odd times, on a Saturday night, on a Sunday morning, I sat down with some music in the background and pulled the specimens out and started going through them. And there was a thrill when I would hit a new species. Good Lord, look at this. I’m the first to see this amazing creature, which is the feeling I would get. But in between all the work was being done. I was doing the drawing and taking the measurements and I was also thinking, meditating about biology and life in general.

TOOMEY: I'm about to ask Dr. Wilson another question. But he puts me on hold, while he reaches for the caltrop ant he's let me look at.

WILSON: Let's see. Where did I put calltrop, my box of calltrop? Yeah, there it is. That’s the nightmare scenario when you're doing taxonomy. Particularly if you've borrowed a bunch of 70 to 100 year old specimens from a European museum. The thought of breaking the specimen is nightmarish. That is part of the work I like the least, unpacking and handling these extremely fragile, but valuable specimens.

TOOMEY: Dr. Wilson made his drawings in much the same way the first taxonomists had in the 18th century. And, like them, when he wanted to compare or identify the specimens kept at other institutions, he had two options. Go to them, or, if you're lucky enough to be one of the world's most famous scientists, have them mailed to you.

WILSON: That’s a high risk procedure. I was able to get back every single specimen to every museum in good condition.

TOOMEY: That isn’t always the case. Harvard has loaned out specimens that have ended up mangled in the mail. But now there’s a new way of doing things that became possible just as Dr. Wilson was finishing up his book.

WILSON: I like to say that the huge work that I did with the drawings was the last of the great sailing ships, and the new order entered with the CD-ROM that is pasted in the back.

TOOMEY: That CD-ROM – and the new order – are based on a breakthrough in digital photography that captures exquisite details of each species. While Professor Wilson added small arrows to his drawings that call attention to important details, the electronic images are stunning close-ups. And to see how it's done, I just have to walk down the hall.

NASKRECKI: Okay. So now the trick is to get lighting right. So I’d increase the lighting a little bit on the back of the head.

MALE: Okay?

TOOMEY: Harvard Research Associate Piotr Naskrecki instructs a lab assistant on insect photography. As Dr. Naskrecki, who also works for the group, Conservation International, tweaks the knob on a microscope, we watch the magnified face of a wasp appear on an adjacent computer screen.

NASKRECKI: This looks pretty good actually. Um, I would put a little more light on this eye. So it's similar to the other one.

TOOMEY: Until recently, photographing small organisms, anything under two inches, presented a big problem. That's because at high magnification, it’s hard to keep everything in focus at the same time. So concentrate on an antenna, and the abdomen gets blurry. Sharpen up the image of a wing and there go the back legs. To illustrate, Naskrecki pans down to the foot of that wasp.

NASKRECKI: So what I’m doing, I’m moving the microscope up and down and by doing that I focus on a different part of the foot. Now the distance between the element on the left, which is the attachment of the foot, to the tip of the foot, the distance, vertical difference between this and that point is probably one tenth of a millimeter, but it’s big enough to completely throw it out of focus.

TOOMEY: So you can only see one at a time?

NASKRECKI: Right, right. So what we’ll try to do is take an auto montage shot of it.

TOOMEY: Auto montage is the name of the computer system that searches out just the in-focus portion of a series of photos, and combines those pieces into one perfect picture. There’s other computer software that can do the same job, but auto montage is a full sixty times faster. It was originally developed for use in geology, but when biologists learned about it a few years ago, they realized what a powerful tool it could be for them. Since then, Naskrecki has been working with the company that developed it, to tweak it for taxonomists.

NASKRECKI: So for our purposes - entomology and other biological sciences, this is a real breakthrough. So a researcher can identify that species without having to examine it under a microscope.

TOOMEY: As Piotr Naskrecki turns a knob ever so slightly, different parts of that wasp foot come into focus on screen. And with a click of a mouse, each image is digitally captured.

NASKRECKI: So I’m just taking individual shots.

[CLICKING]

MALE: You’re just waiting until a certain part comes into focus?

NASKRECKI: Right.

[MOUSE CLICKS]

TOOMEY: A couple of seconds later, the composite photo pops up.

TOOMEY: Wow.

NASKRECKI: So again, all that we wanted to see, which is the foot and all the details of the foot are perfectly in focus.

TOOMEY: Am I right to call them hairs?

NASKRECKI: Yes. You can call them hairs.

TOOMEY: And a claw.

NASKRECKI: And a claw. And this area here, which is shriveled, is the part that’s sticky that allows them to walk on glass.

TOOMEY: Okay. I mean, it’s just kind of horrifying in all its detail, isn’t it?

NASKRECKI: Beautiful.

MALE: It’s beautiful. Yeah.

TOOMEY: Naskrecki and his team plan to use this technology to photograph all of the reference specimens in Harvard's entomology collection, one of the most significant in North America – all 28, 000 of them. Can't imagine where Harvard keeps 28,000 bugs? Once again, the answer’s right down the hall.

[JANGLING KEYS]

FARRELL: Me and the janitors have lots of keys.

[JANGLING KEYS]

TOOMEY: The keeper of the keys around here is Brian Farrell. His official title is Biology Professor and Curator of Entomology at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. Farrell unlocks a heavy metal door, and we walk into a high-ceilinged room, lined with rows of gray metal cabinets, seven hundred in all.

FARRELL: And basically this is the vault, the sort of Fort Knox of this end of biodiversity. So these are the gold standard, really, by which our specimens collected from around the world are compared to decide whether or not they belong to this species or some other species.

TOOMEY: The first thing you notice in here is the dizzying smell of mothballs. In this room, the only good bug is a dead one. Farrell walks to one of the cabinets and pulls open a drawer.

[WALKING; SOUND OF CABINET OPENING]

TOOMEY: The specimens that rest here in foam-lined boxes were collected from all over the world by Harvard researchers.

FARRELL: This is a collection of probably a dozen species of really large Cerambycidae beetles. This one here is a genus from the Peruvian Amazon, and their antennae, these long orange antennae are festooned with these tufts of black hair every other segment like pompons arranged on a long orange wand. Really an extraordinary looking beast.

TOOMEY: Now if I was a taxonomist, who for some reason needed to examine this type specimen?

FARRELL: There really are few options. We only with great hesitancy trust the mail service to mail specimens like this, and really almost never out of country.

TOOMEY: Harvard does allow researchers to examine these specimens here. But that travel can be prohibitively expensive, especially for scientists in the developing world, where most of the world’s biodiversity resides.

[SOUND OF DRAWER CLOSING]

TOOMEY: This is one of the big bottlenecks in species description and before he came to this country, Piotr Naskrecki knew its frustrations all too well.

NASCRECKI: I come from what could be described as a developing country. I come from Poland and I very distinctly remember going through unbelievable hassles trying to borrow specimens that people were very reluctant to send to Poland. So I know the other side of the coin.

TOOMEY: Naskrecki would like to see all major western institutions break down this barrier by following Harvard's lead – digitize their collections and put them on the web with unrestricted access. But Brian Farrell is breaking up that bottleneck in another way – taking technology on the road.

[SOUND OF BUG SPRAY]

TOOMEY: As organic insecticide is sprayed onto trees in the Dominican Republic, a net under the fogger quickly fills with bugs. Brian Farrell took this video when he and a group of undergraduates came here for spring break in 2002, not to party, but to bio-blitz, a frenetic week of insect collecting.

FARRELL: We collected about 500 species in that one week, and probably about half belong to known species.

TOOMEY: Which means the other half await scientific description. That’s not surprising, considering the insect fauna of the Dominican Republic is not well known. But what is surprising is what else Farrell and his tireless team of undergraduates did.

FARRELL: We bar-coded everything, entered it into the database, took high resolution digital images, and put everything on the web before course was over.

TOOMEY: And the bugs that were collected? You won’t find them in that Fort Knox vault down the hall. That’s because Farrell did something pretty radical for a field biologist. While he took home the photos, he left the actual specimens in the Dominican Republic, at the natural history museum in Santo Domingo. And the auto-montage system he took down there? He also left that with the Dominican scientists.

FARRELL: Each month by Federal Express they send up a CD with the updates of images from the natural history collections there. And we mount it on the internet. Eventually, they’ll have their own servers and mount everything there.

TOOMEY: So this searchable, growing database is accessible to all, for free. As Farrell clicks through it on his office computer, I spot an unusual message.

TOOMEY: Could you read that?

FARRELL: Yes, help us with identifications. Yes, we've invited our taxonomist colleagues around the world to log on and look at these specimens. Because in many cases they’re of undescribed species. And this is a way to basically jumpstart the description and knowledge of the biota.

TOOMEY: Piotr Naskrecki has already seen the effect of an on-line collection. Since he and colleagues put up a katydids-of-the-world database, he’s seen a dramatic increase in the number of scientists from developing countries who’ve described new species of katydids.

NASKRECKI: So we have students in Central America, South America, south east Asia working on katydids only because, for the very first time, they're able to access info about the fauna of their own countries with absolutely no problem and for free.

TOOMEY: Brian Farrell hopes his Dominican Republic expedition will serve as a model. He’s already making plans for a similar bio and digital blitz in Cuba. Such piecemeal – but important – efforts will help to chip away, species by species, at the daunting task of completing a global taxonomic survey in a generation. Already, a number of similar efforts are underway. Researchers are carrying out surveys in Sweden, New Zealand, and Italy. In the U.S., national park officials are talking about more inventories similar to the one in the Smokies.

The National Science Foundation has responded to intense lobbying by the taxonomic community and increased its budget for species identification and inventory efforts. And the NSF has just awarded a dozen more grants to fund taxonomy students. In the meantime, E.O. Wilson continues to use his bully pulpit to encourage, cajole and implore the scientific community, indeed the global community, to discover what remains unknown. Back in his Harvard office, Professor Wilson is hardly resting on the laurels of his eight hundred page tome to the pheidole ant. That bio-blitz Brian Farrell is organizing to Cuba? Professor Wilson intends to go along.

TOOMEY: Have you worked in Cuba?

WILSON: A long time ago, in 1953. I spent part of the year down there and I can’t wait to get back. [LAUGHING]

TOOMEY: E.O. Wilson is the living bridge between the old taxonomy and the new - one who, for most of his career, patiently sketched the intricate drawings that served as the basis of species identification for centuries. Yet he embraced the cutting edge technology that took away the need for that skill. A scientist who remains enraptured by his chosen creature, yet one who sees the urgency of describing the full web of life.

WILSON: You know one the reasons to take real pleasure from this future is that it does return us to the 19th century in a sense. The world has to be explored by people who go out in the wild to some of the most interesting places in the wild and engage in physical adventure. Like the athletic young men and women now working way up into canopies of rain forest. So it has that appeal, that we can resume the exploration of a little known planet and that we can combine, literally, physical adventure with fundamental science.

TOOMEY: Put in that way, who could resist such a call to action? For Living on Earth, I'm Diane Toomey in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

[MUSIC]

CURWOOD: “A Little Known Planet" was produced and reported by Diane Toomey and edited by Chris Ballman. Andy Farnsworth mixed the program. Living on Earth is produced for the World Media Foundation. If you have any comments you can share them with us at 800 218 9988. That’s 800 218 9988. Or write to us at 20 Holland Street, Somerville, Massachusetts, 020144. Our email address is comments at loe dot org. Once again comments at loe dot org. And you can hear our program anytime on our web page at livingonearth dot org. That’s livingonearth dot org. Alison Dean composed our themes. I’m Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

FEMALE ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes form the National Science Foundation, supporting coverage of emerging science; and Stonyfield Farm – organic yogurt, cultured soy, and smoothies. Ten percent of their profits are donated to support environmental causes and family farms. Learn more at Stonyfield dot com. Support also comes from NPR member stations and the Annenberg Foundation.

MALE ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

 

Links

All Catfish Planetary Biodiversity Inventory

All Species Foundation

Brian Farrell's Insect Laboratory

Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology's Specimen Database

Great Smokey Mountains All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory

Leeches of Madagascar and the Seychelles

Smokies Volunteer Organization

All Species Foundation

 

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