Gone without a trace

The extinct Carolina parakeet. Collections of the Chicago Academy of Sciences

In December of 2017, conservationists in Sea of Cortez captured one of the thirty surviving native porpoises, the vaquita. Unfortunately, the breeding age female died in captivity, bringing the species one step closer to the fate of its relative the Yangtze River dolphin, which went extinct in 2006. It will also join the growing list of species that have gone or are approaching extinction due to hunting, habitat destruction, introduced pests, or the myriad other ways humans have found to wipe them out. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, in its current Red List of Threatened Species, lists 25% of mammals, 13% of birds, and an astonishing 41% of amphibian species as being threatened. Of the all the species for which there is sufficient information, 2851 are in critical danger of extinction. These are the ones we know about.

The ones we know about are far outnumbered by the ones we don’t. The IUCN list contains some 67,000 species. Of these, more than 20% have insufficient data to ascertain their status. But it gets worse. The majority of species on the list are vertebrates. Invertebrates, which make up the vast majority of life, are only a fraction of those species considered. There are some 7600 species of insect listed by the IUCN; globally, there may be 2,000,000 or more insect species, most never described. The same lack of knowledge is true for almost every animal group in the oceans. Not only are they undescribed, but their role in nature will never be known. And if they are not known, they will not be protected.

Why do we know so little about the existence, let alone the status or ecological importance, of the other species we share the planet with? Part of this is simply because the numbers are so vast and so much of the planet, especially the deep oceans, still remain unexplored. Part is because our technology to recognize species has greatly improved; in 2017 genetic analysis showed that an isolated population of orangutans on the island of Sumatra were a distinct species. They are now listed as critically endangered. Naming them gave them protection. But another part of the story is that there are simply not enough taxonomists, those scientists who can describe the diversity of living things on the planet. And their numbers keep declining.

Much of this due to the relative decline of financial support for this unromantic yet essential research, which trickles down to how biologists are trained. Universities have replaced their taxonomic specialists with researchers in areas such as cell and molecular biology, who are able to bring in much greater funding. The result has been a decline in natural history courses, such as Entomology, Ichthyology, Invertebrate Zoology, or Botany. In a 2014 review, Tewksbury and others discovered that the minimum number of natural history courses required to get a biology degree in most U.S. universities and colleges is zero (yes, zero!). We have none at my own university. We are training generations of biologists who will not be able to name the birds, insects, or plants that their cells and molecule come from. What they don’t know, they can’t describe. And as the older generation of taxonomists retire and pass away, their expertise dies with them.

Museums, which house the irreplaceable collections created by taxonomists, are facing their own problems. The number of curatorial positions are declining even at elite institutions such as Smithsonian and Chicago’s Field Museum. According to the Washington Post, the Trump administration plans to close down the Biological Survey Unit of the United States Geological Survey. Created in 1885, the survey maintains a collection of 1.02 million specimens of North American mammals, birds, and reptiles, housed at Smithsonian. They represent an unrivaled picture of animal life in our country as it was. The budget cuts will eliminate six positions and save a whopping $1.6 million dollars. It is unclear whether the Smithsonian will be able to pick up the slack. Six more experts gone.

Isn’t more important to find a cure for cancer than it is to describe yet one more nematode? This assumes that the relatively tiny amount of money needed to train and support taxonomists will critically impact our ability to fund other areas of biological research. And it ignores the real possibility that somewhere in the diversity of life are the organisms that will give the critical clue to solving human diseases or give us an essential insight into the impact of climate change.

It is not too late to bring back natural history in our faculty and classrooms and to fund our natural history institutions. Funding bodies need to make hiring and training in natural history a priority. There is some hope; Don Lyman, writing in Undark magazine, described revised interest in natural history at Harvard and Berkeley. Hopefully this will spread.

Once a species goes extinct, it is gone forever. If it does so without ever having been described, it is as if never existed.

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Roy Plotnick

Roy Plotnick

Paleontologist, geologist, ecologist, educator. Professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Author of Explorers of Deep Time.