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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

A Little Known Planet, Part 1

Air Date: Week of

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.


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.



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