A Little Known Planet, Part 1/ Diane Toomey
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It may be surprising to learn that we really have no idea how many species exist on our planet. Many experts believe that the earth plays host to anywhere from 10 to 30 million species. A few say that number could be much higher. But by any reckoning, only a fraction of them are known to science. On this special edition of Living on Earth, Science Editor Diane Toomey visits with famed biologist E.O. Wilson. He’s calling for an all-out effort to discover, describe and classify as many of them as they can before it’s too late. (13:00)
A Little Known Planet, Part 2/ Diane Toomey
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Nine years ago, the National Science Foundation launched a grant program to help pull the basic science of species identification out of the scientific backwaters. The initiative funds graduate students in particularly hard hit fields of taxonomy. Living on Earth’s Diane Toomey tagged along with one such student and her professor. (19:00)
A Little Known Planet, Part 3/ Diane Toomey
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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. (16:30)
HOST: Steve CurwoodREPORTER: Diane Toomey
CURWOOD: From NPR, this is Living on Earth.
CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood. How many species make their home on planet Earth? The answer is, we don’t know. Few life forms here have actually been described by science. Now scientists are calling for an all out effort to survey life on earth. Biologist E. O Wilson says there’s one good reason to do this inventory.
WILSON: Obviously in the realm of conservation we can’t save what we don’t know.
CURWOOD: Already some amazing creatures are being found under the microscope. One of these is called the water bear.
SPIEGEL: You watch for a bit and you start to see how it moves and it moves in a very mammalian like pattern. It kind of moves it’s head from side to side and it waves it’s arms around. That’s why I call it the charismatic microfauna.
CURWOOD: We take a journey to a little known planet on Living on Earth, right after this.
FEMALE ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation and Stonyfield Farms.
CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley studios, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.
Recently, Japanese researchers surprised the world when they published a paper describing a new species of whale. They say they discovered this baleen whale when they were studying the DNA of the 36 foot long Byrde’s whale, which swims off the coast of Japan. A new species this size is a rare find these days, but in fact we really have no idea how many species exist on our planet. Many experts believe that the Earth plays host to anywhere from 10 to 30 million distinct forms of life. A few say that number could be as high as 100 million. But less than two million life forms have been given a formal name and studied in at least some minimal way. And as species disappear at an unprecedented rate, scientist hope to discover, describe and classify as many of them as they can before it’s too late.
On this special edition of Living on Earth, Science Editor Diane Toomey will chronicle the who and how of this massive endeavor: the cutting-edge technologies, and the labor, both scientists and non scientists alike, that will be needed. And we’ll hear from the grand old man of biodiversity himself, E.O. Wilson.
So let’s set off to explore this little known planet.
TOOMEY: It's a pleasant autumn night on New York's upper east side. Inside the elegant explorer's club, jut off Park Avenue, scientists are gathering to honor a group of colleagues. I make my way past the stained glass windows, up the staircase lined with wood-paneled walls, turn right at the stuffed polar bear, and find the library room, where dozens have assembled. The club was founded almost a century ago by a band of gentleman-adventurers. And the photos of such legendary members as Ernest Shackleton, Lowell Thomas, and Sir Edmund Hillary hang from the walls. All were inspired, as club literature reads, by the desire to pry from the earth its long-held secrets. The same is true for tonight's honorees. But for them, it's not about big game or big mountains. For instance there's Fred Speigel, a University of Arkansas biologist. He's launching a worldwide hunt for all the species of slime mold.
SPIEGEL: Slime molds are rather unfortunately named. But they're called slime molds because the feeding stage is protozoa-like. It’s an amoeba. So that's the slime part. The mold part is they form these absolutely spectacular fruiting bodies that look like little fungi, mushroom like organisms. And they're jewels. My father-in-law stopped considering me a bum when he saw how beautiful they are.
TOOMEY: Fred Spiegel is one of four researchers leading what are known as planetary biodiversity inventories. It's a new strategy, funded by the National Science and All Species foundations, to discover the unknown life on Earth. As the National Science Foundation puts it, our generation is the first to be aware of mass extinctions now occurring and the last to have the chance to inventory much of our planet's biodiversity before it disappears. So over the next five years, international teams will venture into the field, labor in the lab and scour the backrooms of museums, worldwide, in search of all the species in their particular specialty. A team will focus on catfish, another on a family of plant-feeding insects known as miridae, and there's even a botanist being feted here tonight.
BOHS: My name is Lynn Bohs and my specialty is the plant genus solinum. This genus includes tomato, potato and eggplant, a lot of other species that are used as food crops and also plants that are used as medicinal compounds.
TOOMEY: The University of Utah researcher says being part of a planetary biodiversity inventory, or PBI, is daunting.
BOHS: It's scary but exciting. This is a dream for us. Three of us were in the field in South America together a couple of years ago and talked about doing this project before we even knew about the PBI program. So as soon as we saw the announcement we said we’ve got to go for it.
TOOMEY: There was a time when this kind of basic exploration was the very backbone of the biological sciences. But it fell out of favor in the last century.
TOOMEY: Now, a number of influential researchers are calling for a return to basic exploration – everywhere, for everything.
WILSON: Now what I'm going to do is take a specimen from one of scores of cabinets just for the genus pheidole alone, in the insect collections here in the Museum of Comparative Zoology.
E.O. Wilson looks at an ant nest in the Dominican Republic. (Photo: Brian Farrell)
TOOMEY: E.O. Wilson leans over a large wooden box, filled with dozens of specimens of the creature that's made him famous – ants. The preeminent biologist's accomplishments include pioneering work on the chemical communication of ants and in the field of sociobiology. He's famous to non-scientists through his Pulitzer-prize winning books.
Nowadays, he's perhaps best known as a spokesperson for conservation. Wilson even coined the terms biodiversity and biophilia. But today, in his Harvard office, we’re talking ants. He carefully picks up one of the tiny insects and places it under his microscope.
WILSON: Now I'm going to sit down, and get the specimen under the scope so it can be viewed properly, and get the magnification down first so we can locate the specimen and line it up in the correct position.
TOOMEY: Before he leans towards the microscope, Professor Wilson flips back a lock of his hair. And in that moment, and despite the fact he's dressed in professorial tweed, the expectant look of a boy comes over his face.
WILSON: Caltrop! And this one is called caltrop because it has long needlelike spines on the back of the middle part of its body and it made me think of a caltrop. You know this triangular spine weapon that used to be thrown on the ground in ancient warfare.
TOOMEY: At 74, Professor Wilson's enthusiasm for his ants remains unabated. But these days, it's the life that remains unknown that plays more and more on his mind.
WILSON: It’s not an exaggeration to say we live on a little known planet. And the science of biology in the 21st century will depend on a closer examination of the diversity of life at the species level and an all out effort to complete the mapping of life on Earth.
TOOMEY: That's what Wilson and others are calling for - a concerted effort over the next quarter century to discover and describe the millions of species that remain unknown to formal science. While creatures like birds, mammals, and flowering plants are relatively well known, it’s the smallest life forms – things like nematodes, millipedes, and bacteria – that largely remain a mystery. Wilson calls these unheralded organisms the little creatures that run the world. And he says there's a price to pay if we ignore of them.
WILSON: When biologists go forth into the field, to understand how ecosystems work, to identify new invasive species, to identify the pathogens of new diseases, to look for new pharmaceuticals among plants and even insects, the typical experience is they can’t identify large numbers of these species. They’re not even aware of their existence.
TOOMEY: For instance, before they were discovered in the 1970s, who imagined that microorganisms – known as extremophiles – could survive in the boiling temperatures of ocean thermal vents or in icy polar seas or in acidic hot springs. Research on one such bizzare creature led to the development of a technique called polymerase chain reaction, now a common and indispensable method of duplicating DNA. The enzyme of another is now used to make a protein-degrading additive for detergents. Other extremophiles are being mined for possible sources of new antimicrobial agents. But E.O. Wilson says there's another, more basic reason behind the need for a global survey.
WILSON: Obviously, in the realm of conservation, we can’t save what we don’t know.
TOOMEY: And the key to carrying out this survey is the discipline known as taxonomy. That's the science of discovering, describing and classifying species. But there's a glitch. Taxonomy fell out of favor in the last century, as microbiology took center stage – and most of the research money. Now, there are few scientists who have the ability to discern the often maddeningly subtle, minute details that differentiate one species from another. Dr. Wilson never left the basic work of ant identification. In fact, he's recently published an 800-page opus on just one genus of ant – pheidole – otherwise known as the big-headed ants.
WILSON: Their heads are filled with adductor massive muscles. They're the Schwarzenegger only from the chest up. And those powerful sharp jaws they have allows them to operate like wire clippers when they meet enemies. They just chop off their legs and heads and so on. Along with them you'll see the skinny little minor workers that do all the work.
TOOMEY: And get none of the credit?
WILSON: Well, they get if from me!
E.O. Wilson points to a termite trail on a tree in the Dominican Republic. (Photo: Brian Farrell)
TOOMEY: This massive endeavor was actually a hobby. Wilson did it on the weekend – 18 years worth of weekends and countless hours after work. Now, all 624 species of pheidole ants in the New World, including more than three hundred new to science, have been described and drawn in amazing detail.
WILSON: It was done for the love of the ant itself, for the love of work itself. Just as a loving exercise in natural history.
TOOMEY: Wilson's love of natural history has its origins in his boyhood. He says he never outgrew his bug stage. But he did have a mentor in his study of ants.
WILSON: When I was 18 years old, I announced while I was an undergraduate at University of Alabama, that my great ambition was to do a complete study of the ants of Alabama. Well, you've got to start somewhere. And this young graduate student, just seven years older than me, was at Harvard. And he heard about me and we started corresponding. And he said, look Wilson, the ants of Alabama isn't going to cut it. What you've got to do is get a broader perspective and start working on the basic biology of a group of ants and look abroad and get moving.
TOOMEY: Dr. Wilson says entomologist Bill Brown took him under his wing, introduced him to researchers at Harvard and, as Wilson puts it, he never looked back. In his latest book, Wilson includes a tribute to his mentor.
WILSON: He welcomed you. He treated you with respect. He stood in awe with you before the intricacy of the subject. He gladly taught and learned. He created a sense that here in this little discipline was something – to borrow from F. Scott Fitzgerald - the kind of writer Bill Brown so admired – something commensurate to man's capacity for wonder. In 1950, he was 28 and I was 21, and the whole world seemed ours to possess.
TOOMEY: Everyone should have such a mentor.
WILSON: I would like to provide that lesson for everyone if I possibly could.
TOOMEY: Taxonomy is going to need many more mentors if the millions of unknown species are ever to be identified. But, right now, many creatures have no experts. For instance, the last camel cricket specialist died in 1989. Want to study the grasshoppers of the Caucasus and need help? Well, you’re about three decades too late. The endangered status of taxonomists has even led to jokes. One goes like this – taxonomists are so rare, maybe they should all be brought in from the wild and enrolled in a captive breeding program.
CURWOOD: You’re listening to “A Little Known Planet.” Coming up: Diane Toomey takes us to visit a program to encourage students to take up the basic science of classifying forms of life. You’re listening to NPR’s Living on Earth.
CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living on Earth’s special “A Little Known Planet.” I'm Steve Curwood. It's probably easy to find a lot of 4th graders who say they'd like to study chimpanzees or whales or elephants when they grow up. But what 4th grader goes around saying I want to be a sea slug taxonomist? But sea slugs, along with parasitic wasps, bark beetles and many other organisms, are among the many understudied creatures that make up a critical part of ecosystems. In 1994, the National Science Foundation launched a grant program to help pull the basic science of species identification out of the scientific backwaters. The initiative funds graduate students in particularly hard hit fields of taxonomy.
Living on Earth’s Diane Toomey visited with one such student and her professor.
SIDDAL: Now talk to me. What's going to be convenient for you guys out there? Buckets?
[TUBES CLINKING TOGETHER]
TOOMEY: Researcher Mark Siddall stands on the shore of a small pond on the campus of the University of Connecticut in Storrs, handing out equipment to his assistants.
SIDDALL: These are 50mL falcon tubes normally used for centrifuging various compounds. We of course use them for collecting leeches.
TOOMEY: Blood- sucking leeches are the focus of much of Mark Siddall's work. He's a curator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. While most people might go out of their way to avoid leeches, he goes out of his to find them. Siddall has looked for them from the jungles of Madagascar to the mountains of the Andes. Today, he's searching in western Connecticut. And after making sure her waders are properly secured, he sends his 27 year-old his graduate student, Liz Borda, into the chilly waters.
SIDDALL: All right kids. Get outta here!
SIDDALL: Go out and find some leeches!
BORDA: Yes, Pappa Leech.
[SOUNDS OF WADING, SPLASHING]
TOOMEY: Now that we’re out here, describe what happens next.
BORDA: So, we're just gonna stand around here, move our legs, shake our legs, hopefully not fall in. They'll be attracted to movement, so they’ll come swimming towards us. So we'll just stand around and wait.
TOOMEY: The mission today - find the New England medicinal leech, which hasn't been seen since the 1970s. The word medicinal is a leftover from blood–letting days. And although leech anticoagulants are put to use in modern medicine, during procedures such as limb attachments, that’s not why this team is interested in them. They’re motivated by simple scientific curiosity. They want to find out if the New England medicinal leech is really a distinct species and if it’s gone extinct.
Liz Borda searches for leeches in Madagascar. (Photo: Mark Siddall)
BORDA: Hold on. I found a leech. But it's not the one we're looking for. Right now I have a very tiny leech, from family of _________. There’s some blood feeders. There’s also some non-blood feeders. Some species will pretty much suck a snail dry.
TOOMEY: Liz brings the tiny, brown creature wriggling on the palm of her hand to Dr. Siddall to identify.
SIDDALL: Helibdelastagnalis. It might be surprising that with a naked eye I can identify a species of leech that’s maybe 4 millimeters long.
TOOMEY: I'm impressed.
SIDDALL: But if you look carefully in the light there's a tiny black dot on the neck, well, not really a neck, and that's the only species in North America that has that.
TOOMEY: Mark Siddall is one of only a handful of leech taxonomists in the world. He’s obviously devoted to the study of his creature – he even keeps a Leech Man action figure on display in his office. That's why he wants to pass on his knowledge and, as he puts it, replace himself. But his is an uphill battle.
SIDDALL: I have trouble getting scientists excited about leech systematics. I mean, let’s be honest. If you put me in a room next to Ed Wilson, who works on ants, people get excited about ants. But leeches, it’s like oooooh.
TOOMEY: And that was Liz Borda's reaction when she first encountered leeches on a trip to Madagascar to study lemurs. One day, while she was out on a hike…
Freshwater leech of Madagascar. (Photo: Mark Siddall)
BORDA: All of a sudden I looked down at my pants and I had 20 leeches climbing up my leg. You couldn’t rip them off because they’re just so quick, They're just after you. And when you have 20 or 30 of them in all directions, you don’t know where they’re coming from. It was just horrible.
TOOMEY: But somehow, when she interviewed for a job as an assistant in Siddall's lab, she resisted the urge to run out the door when he told her what he did for a living. But because of the chance to participate in his field work, Liz says she eventually decided to follow in Dr. Siddall’s footsteps.
BORDA: Ok, maybe it’s not the cute and fuzzy animals I wanted to study but maybe this could be something different.
TOOMEY: And for the brave few like Liz, there’s a lot more leeches to find. For instance, Mark Siddall says in one six-week trip to Madagascar, he doubled the known number of terrestrial leech species on that island.
[WATER SPLASHING AND BIRDS CAWING]
TOOMEY: But no such luck today. The team has struck out at another pond, this one in nearby Massachusetts.
SIDDALL: This is a sad day. This has been the third time I’ve been here, looking for this leech, but I can't keep justifying coming back to same place.
TOOMEY: Why do you care about finding this guy, the New England medicinal leech?
SIDDALL: Oh, wow. I guess my first answer would be somewhat flippant. Why not? Academically speaking, it would be interesting to know if this species is a valid species, and that would lead us to try and understand why it’s why it's so rare. As far as understanding something that would be of benefit to humanity, that's really not my concern. I'm not bothered by that. But then neither was the person who first described the giant Amazonian leech, in the 1800s I think or the early 1900s. Nobody cared. But now we know that species has an incredibly powerful anti-coagulant that will actively break down clots after they’ve formed. Now, if no one had bothered to give that species a name and identify where it occurs and where it lives, would have bothered to look for it later to see if it had some of these properties? So my job is on the descriptive side of things. What's out there? Where are they? How are they related? I'll leave it for someone more qualified than me to figure out why that might be interesting.
[WATER SLOSHING, BIRD CAWING]
TOOMEY: Mark Siddall looks down into the chilly water, and as he continues, I hear the passion in his voice.
SIDDALL: You know, the world would be a darker, more lonely place without them. If all we had were antelope, and elephants, and panda bears, the world would be a pretty boring place. The fullness of biodiversity itself is something that's aesthetically beautiful.
[WATER SLOSHING, BIRD CAWING]
TOOMEY: Liz Borda says when she finishes her PhD in a few years, she hopes a museum, or the like, will want to employ a leech taxonomist. In the meantime, just studying leeches has its benefits.
BORDA: Honestly, saying you work on leeches can either be a conversation starter or conversation stopper. So you can use it to your advantage at times I think. [LAUGHTER]
TOOMEY: It kind of weeds out the men from the boys?
BORDA: Exactly [LAUGHS].
TOOMEY: If Liz ever discovers a new leech species, scientific protocol dictates she’ll get the honor of naming it. That’s something E.O. Wilson has had plenty of experience doing. Just for this latest book, he had to come up with more than three hundred names for the new species of pheidole ants he discovered. They include Pheidole harlequina, named for it's multicolored body, Pheidole harrisonfordi, named in honor of the actor, for his support of conservation causes, and Pheidole bison, alluding to the massive humped back of that species’ soldier ant. After studying this group for almost two decades, I asked Dr. Wilson if he had any favorites. He tells me about a rare species that has a rather unusual way of protecting its nests.
WILSON: They have heads shaped like the cork of a wine bottle and the front of the head is heavily armored like an old Greek shield. And what they do when enemies appear is they then plug the nest with their heads. And I think, to use the current word, that's kind of cool.
TOOMEY: And cool, Dr. Wilson says, will help to lure people to the study of the natural world. And if that deadline of finding all the unknown species in 25 years is to be met, people without scientific training will also need to get involved. There's one place in the U.S. where so-called citizen scientists are already being put to the test.
[CROWD NOISE, COUNTRY MUSIC]
TOOMEY: The visitor’s center at the Great Smokey Mountains National Park is hopping today. In the autumn, tourists come to this park, which straddles the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, to take in stunning foliage. And then they hit the gift shop for post cards, patches, and pumpkin butter.
[CROWD NOISE, COUNTRY MUSIC]
MALE: Thank you. Have a good day.
TOOMEY: But just a few short miles from this racket, two citizen scientists labor in quiet determination.
Alex Cassella identifies moths at a research facility in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park. (Photo: Jonathan Mays)
A. CASSELLA: Okay, I need an opinion.
P.CASSELLA: You need an opinion?
A. CASSELLA: Is that possible? Do we possibly have him?
P. CASSELLA: I think, maybe.
A. CASSELLA: Could it be a color variation? Or is it….
TOOMEY: 14-year-old Alex Cassella and his mother Paige are combing field guides at a research facility in the park. With the help of park ranger Jonathan Mays, they’re comparing pictures of brown moths to the actual brown moth in front of them.
MAYS: He has a margin on the rear of its forewing. Let’s check in the Quebec book.
A. CASSELLA: God, the one that’s all in French?
TOOMEY: Twice a month, Alex and his mom come to the park to empty a moth trap, a Rube Goldberg contraption that uses a black light to lure the moths into a refrigerator. And then they try to figure out what's been caught. Alex, a teenager with a mature demeanor and a direct gaze, is home-schooled. But here in the Smokies, he studies under the guidance of park employees. And he’s gotten to the point where he can identify a number of moths down to the species level.
A. CASSELLA: Well, you can tell by the wing shape here, how his wings are folded back here that he’s a noctuid. You can see he has a pattern that’s very distinct. He’s got a light spot here, then a dark spot with a tiny spot of pure white in it. Like a reverse eye.
TOOMEY: In his small way, Alex is helping to complete a large project – the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory. That's the name of the park's five year old effort to find and identify every life form within its half-million acres – bears to bacteria. It's the first project of its kind in the U.S. The mission has already discovered more than four hundred species, including beetles, millipedes, fungi, crayfish and slime molds. Alex hasn't found any new moth species – yet – but says he’s glad to help out and he’s learned a lot.
A. CASSELLA: I didn’t think there’d be nearly as many moths as there were - nondescript LBMs – little brown moths.
TOOMEY: The survey has a shoestring budget, supported mostly by two non-profit organizations. So in the summer months, armies of volunteers descend on the Smokies for activities with names like fern foray and beetle blitz. Keith Langdon is the supervisory biologist at the park and coordinates the inventory. He says the involvement of citizen scientists is essential, but it's risky.
LANGDON: What we found out hard way is that you can’t invite citizens in and turn ‘em loose, because they need someone to show ‘em the ropes. And when you’re talking about data, that bad data is far worse then no data at all. And so it requires some supervision, some structure. So we’ve been careful to expand the volunteers to where we can provide the data to make it trustworthy.
TOOMEY: So the park has a mandatory training program to insure that specimens sent to experts for identification have accurate where and what information attached to them. Langdon says many volunteers participate once. Some are repeat citizen scientists. Only a few are hardcore.
LANGDON: The gold standard here is to find someone who just becomes enamored, almost obsessed with a particular group, and actually do become local regional experts. But it’s difficult to find people who have the time and the wherewithal to provide that.
TOOMEY: And there are bottlenecks. There’s only so many staff members to train and supervise volunteers. And while it may be relatively easy to get people out on the trails to collect the bottles of bugs caught in traps, that's just the beginning.
LANGDON: We need people to go through and sort the moths from the beetles from the flies from the ants. That’s a real bottleneck. The world authorities don’t have time to do that.
TOOMEY: Langdon says he can’t really blame citizen scientists for having their limits.
LANGDON: Let’s face it. When you come to a national park, you want to hike, you want to get out and see some of the wildlife and see some vistas.
[TREES RUSTLING, BIRDS CALLING]
BARTLES: This is the minus 70 degree freezer which we use for all kinds of samples. The top shelf of that is crammed with samples from the Smokies.
TOOMEY: Right now, the only vista that concerns zoologist Paul Bartles is the one he sees in his lab freezer.
BARTLES: We've done most of the field collecting and we have a huge backlog of doing the lab processing. It takes something like six hours of lab work for every hour in field to process that stuff.
TOOMEY: That stuff is the hundreds of baggies crammed into this freezer that are stuffed with moss, lichen or soil, which are, in turn, chuck full of tardigrades. Never heard of a tardigrade? Well, neither had I.
BARTLES: There's something crawling around. Let's see what that is. Ah. Right there. There is a tardigrade.
TOOMEY: Dr. Bartles, a professor at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina, zeroes in on one of these microscopic creatures and then let's me have a look.
Top: armored tardigrade Bottom: non-armored tardigrade (Photo: Diane Nelson, East Tennessee State University)
TOOMEY: It’s very cute!
BARTLES: That’s the most commonly word to describe them.
TOOMEY: Under the microscope, I see a pleasantly plump creature propelling itself through the water on stubby little legs.
BARTLES: If you watch for a little bit you start to see how it moves, it moves in a very mammalian like pattern. It kind of moves its head from side to side and waves its arms around. And because of that they've been called water bears. And so that’s why I call these charismatic microfauna. They’re really pretty neat little animals.
TOOMEY: Paul Bartles heads up the first-ever tardigrade survey in the Smokies. So far, he and colleagues have found 44 species, 8 of which are new to science. There's probably more out there. But for now, those discoveries will have to wait because of the backlog in lab work. Before they can be sent off to one of the few specialists able to identify them, the tardigrades have to be flushed out, isolated and then placed in test tubes. With the small about of money the park has given him, Bartles has been able to hire college sophomore Stacey Hollis to do some of this grunt work, which involves lots and lots of pipetting.
HOLLIS: Up and down and up and down. It takes a good while and you want to make sure to get every little bit of sediment because you don't want to miss anything.
TOOMEY: It sounds like it can be tedious?
HOLLIS: It can be very tedious [LAUGHS]. Sometimes I will have music playing. And it’s good to work in pairs otherwise you're just sitting there, thinking a lot. [LAUGHS]
TOOMEY: Paul Bartes says it's been almost impossible to find volunteers to do this tedious work. If he had the money, he could hire a full-time technician. And he’s come up with a scheme to get that cash. Remember those eight new species of tardigrades? Well, they don’t have names yet.
BARTLES: If anyone wants to donate a lot of money, I’ll name eight tardigrades after you! We can have a bidding war maybe! [LAUGHTER]
CURWOOD: Coming up, we’ll hear that some people don't require big bucks to do work that might seem repetitive or tedious. For them, such work is a delight. But first, In May, a group of our listeners will join me on an Eco-Tour of some of Africa’s great natural areas.
The tour will include a special walking safari in South Africa’s amazing Kruger National Park. The park’s 16 ecosystems are home to over 700 species of bird and mammals. It’s a land of diversity, but Kruger is most famous for an abundance of the “Big Five”: Lions, leopards, rhinos, buffalo, and elephants. You’ll have the rare opportunity to see all these animals up close, as guides take you on day hikes and night drives.
There are two ways that you can join the caravan. Go to livingonearth dot org to find out how you can win a trip for two. You can also reserve a space by buying a ticket right now. For details, visit our website – livingonearth dot org. That’s livingonearth dot org for a chance at the trip of a lifetime.
CURWOOD: You're listening to NPR’s Living on Earth.
FEMALE ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation and the Ford Foundation for reporting on U.S. environment and development issues. And the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for coverage of Western issues. Support also comes from NPR member stations and Bob Williams and Meg Caldwell honoring NPR’s coverage of environmental and natural resource issues and in support of the NPR’s President Council. And Paul and Marsha Ginsburg, in support of excellence in public radio.
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.
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.
MALE: You’re just waiting until a certain part comes into focus?
TOOMEY: A couple of seconds later, the composite photo pops up.
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?
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.
FARRELL: Me and the janitors have lots of 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.
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.
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- All Catfish Planetary Biodiversity Inventory
- All Species Foundation
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- 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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