Mission critical: Species explorers propose steps to map biosphere

April 2, 2012

Scientists say worldwide collections, existing experts and technology make charting 10 million species in less than 50 years achievable; a necessary step to sustain planet’s biodiversity

An ambitious goal to describe 10 million species in less than 50 years is achievable and necessary to sustain Earth’s biodiversity, according to an international group of 39 scientists, scholars and engineers who provided a detailed plan, including measures to build public support, in the March 30 issue of the journal Systematics and Biodiversity. The journal is based at the Natural History Museum in London. Download Full Image

“Earth’s biosphere has proven to be a vast frontier that, even after centuries of exploration, remains largely uncharted,” wrote the authors, who include biodiversity crusaders Edward O. Wilson and Peter H. Raven.

“Exploring the biosphere is much like exploring the universe,” the authors argued. “The more we learn, the more complex and surprising the biosphere and its story turn out to be.”

By most estimates, about 2 million of Earth’s species are known, with about 18,000 new plants and animals discovered each year. Experts estimate at least 10 million species on Earth are yet to be discovered or accurately classified. These species are tiny, large, buried, hidden in collections, or in plain sight.

Raven, President Emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden, has said that roughly 30 percent of Earth’s species will become extinct this century. He and the other co-authors pointed out: “For the first time in human history, the rate of species extinction may exceed that of species discovery.”

“The time is ripe for a comprehensive mission to explore and document Earth’s species. Charting the biosphere is enormously complex, yet necessary expertise can be found through partnerships with engineers, information scientists, sociologists, ecologists, climate scientists, conservation biologists, industrial project managers and taxon specialists, from agrostologists to zoophytologists,” noted the authors of “Mapping the biosphere; exploring species to understand the origin, organization and sustainability of biodiversity.”

“From the 18th century until our appreciation for the pace of biodiversity loss, it seemed that we could make do with fractional knowledge of Earth’s species. It is now clear that this was a tragic miscalculation,” said Quentin Wheeler, the lead author. Wheeler is an entomologist and director of the International Institute for Species Exploration at Arizona State University.

Disappearing knowledge

“The pace of environmental change and species extinctions indicates that we need a comprehensive inventory of species and we need it now. Without exploring, describing and classifying Earth’s species we may miss many of our best opportunities to learn from natural selection how to solve countless problems related to our own sustainable survival,” said Wheeler, who also is a senior sustainability scientist at ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability and a professor in the School of Sustainability.

“A fuller understanding of biodiversity explains not only which species exist in nature, but also how they are interrelated to each other, genealogically and geographically, and how they interact with each other,” said co-author, Marcelo R. de Carvalho, a professor at the University of São Paulo in Brazil.

“Perhaps now is the right time to increase the effort of such an inventory, which has been going on for many centuries, simply because we are mature enough in our understanding to ask the right questions,” de Carvalho said.

The authors also noted that a generation of experts in fauna and flora is retiring, without transferring their knowledge to new generations.

“Without this information and these skills, studying nature will be like introducing a probe into a black box. We will get data but we will not have an accurate idea to what it corresponds,” said co-author Antonio G. Valdecasas, a research scientist with the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Madrid, Spain.

“In 2012, we are facing an unprecedented crisis and have unprecedented opportunities,” stressed co-author Johannes Vogel, director of the Museum of Natural History in Berlin, Germany. “The world is in an extinction crisis, at the same time, we have all the intellectual and technological capacity for rapid biodiversity discovery – combining the power of science, industry and society for a most noble cause: discovering and understanding the planet we inhabit,” he said.

Mapping the mission

The mission described Vogel and the other authors “is no less than a full knowledge-base of the biological diversity on our planet.”

To achieve this goal, the authors proposed “an intensive internationally collaborative mission aimed at discovering as many plant and animal species on Earth as possible and mapping their distributions in its biosphere.”

“The ultimate goal of the proposed mission is to know every species; to learn what makes each unique, from its anatomy to its genome, behaviour, ecological associations, geographic and seasonal distributions and phylogenetic relationships,” the authors wrote.

The authors proposed building on more than 250 years of species exploration by tapping a workforce of taxon experts, and the public, and leveraging recent technological advances to accomplish this goal. The authors also seek to create open access to research resources.

They noted that an estimated 3 billion specimens are held in collections in botanical gardens, natural history museums and universities. “This is a profoundly powerful scientific research resource,” the authors wrote. “As a museum-specific cyberinfrastructure is envisioned and engineered, it is reasonable to predict a time in the not-too-distant future when all collections become nodes in a global network that functions as if it were one vast, distributed ‘museum’ accessible to all.”

“Without expanding our natural history museums and botanical gardens to fully reflect the spectacularly diverse results of 3.8 billion years of evolution there is a danger that we will never know in detail the story of the origin and evolution of life on our planet,” said Wheeler.

Co-author Sandra Knapp, merit researcher at the Natural History Museum in London was in Peru doing field work when “Mapping the biosphere” article was published. She noted “the rate of habitat alteration is ever more alarming, as I have seen on this field trip. Places where biodiversity used to abound are now monocultures of one imported species.

“Without a rapid and timely survey of what species we share this planet with, we will never know what we have lost,” said Knapp.

“This is important and timely. That it has not happened is due in part to our (the human species) short ecological memory. We tend to remember as natural or pristine the conditions of only a couple of generations ago. In a way, we have been complacent about the Earth’s ability to provide and keep on providing,” she said.

A list of immediate steps are proposed in the article, under the heading “Taxonomic triage.” The authors suggested that “all species described from this point forward and every specimen added to a collection from this point forward should be done in a way that is part of the solution and not part of the problem.”

Among the recommendations were specific steps to diversify the workforce engaging both amateurs and professionals, modernize research infrastructure through cutting edge digital technologies, accelerate the rate of species discovery and description, and coordinate among international scientists and natural history museums.

Sustain What? workshop genesis

The plan and recommendations laid out in “Mapping the biosphere” are an outgrowth of a two-day workshop in November 2010 that was attended by the authors and hosted in New York by ASU’s International Institute for Species Exploration. Titled “Sustain What? Mission to Explore Earth’s Species and Conserve Biodiversity,” the workshop was funded in part by the National Science Foundation with support from the New York Botanical Garden and the New York Academy of Sciences.

“The discussion during those two days presented a clear, compelling vision for the future and a detailed map of how to get there,” said Wheeler.

“One thing that struck me very clearly was that there are no easy answers to our biodiversity dilemmas on an international scale,” said de Carvalho. “In other words, different scientists who specialize in different fields, which can be more or less related to biodiversity, may see priorities and respective solutions very differently. We are biodiverse in our outlook.

“At the same time, however, I sensed that common ground was amongst us. Interacting with scientists from other fields, such as sociology and climatology, areas that can similarly be characterized as big science was quite instructive,” said de Carvalho.

Galvanizing public opinion

“Few people are aware of just how little we know about life on Earth,” wrote the authors. To build public awareness and gain public support the authors also included several ideas to “galvanize public opinion.” One of the ideas was biome blitzes – intensive 24-hour events held around the world in local communities that seek to collect and highlight as many species as possible in a single location. Another was focusing the world’s attention on one relatively well-known, small nation in an attempt to rapidly bring its flora and fauna close to encyclopedic knowledge.

“If we, as a species, are serious about achieving sustainable biodiversity, then the first step is to get serious about species exploration,” said ASU’s Wheeler.

“Part of what makes us human is our insatiable curiosity about the world around us. This century will witness the greatest decline in species diversity since the origin of humankind and much of what we do not explore now will become a haunting mystery to future generations,” said Wheeler. “That we can scratch this deep intellectual itch to understand the history and diversity of life and at the same time dramatically increase our prospects for a bright future in a rapidly changing world only begs the question: ‘What are we waiting for?’”

Other co-authors of “Mapping the biosphere” include Dennis Stevenson, Jan Stevenson, Brian M. Boom, Angelica Cibrian, Vinson Doyle, Wayne Law, James Miller, Holly Porter-Morgan, Alejandro Vasco and Ramona L. Walls from the New York Botanical Garden; Stanley Blum, California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco; Gary G. Borisy and Holly Miller, Marine Biology Laboratory, Woods Hole, Mass.; James L. Buizer, University of Arizona; Michael J. Donoghue, Yale University, Connecticut; Elihu M. Gerson, Tremont Research Institute, San Francisco; Catherine H. Graham, University of Minnesota, St. Paul; Patrick Graves, Maryland Department of Fish and Wildlife, Annapolis;

And, Sara J. Graves, University of Alabama, Huntsville; Robert P. Guralnick, CU Museum of Natural History, University of Colorado at Boulder; James Hanken, Harvard University (E.O. Wilson is also with Harvard); Diana L. Lipscomb, George Washington University, Washington, D.C.; Thomas E. Lovejoy, George Mason University, Virginia; Shahid Naeem, Columbia University, New York; Michael J. Novacek and Norman I. Platnick, American Museum of Natural History, New York; Lawrence M. Page, University of Florida, Gainesville; M. Alma Solis, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Systematic Entomology Laboratory, Maryland; Andrew L. Hamilton and Sander van der Leeuw, Arizona State University; Niki Vermeulen, University of Vienna, Austria; and James B. Woolley, Texas A&M University, College Station.

The open-access article “Mapping the biosphere” is online at http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14772000.2012.665095.

Quentin Wheeler, Quentin.Wheeler@asu.edu (Languages spoken: English)
Arizona State University, USA

Antonio G. Valdecasas, valdeca@gmail.com (Languages spoken: Spanish, English)
Museo Nacional Ciencias Naturales, Madrid, Spain

Sandra Knapp, s.knapp@nhm.ac.uk (Languages spoken: English)
Natural History Museum, London, U.K.

Marcelo de Carvalho, mrcarvalho@ib.usp.br (Languages spoken: Portuguese, English)
Universidade de São Paulo, Brazil

Johannes Vogel, Johannes.vogel@mfn-berlin.de (Languages spoken: German, English)
Museum für Naturkunde. Berlin, Germany

@ASU in the U.S.
Carol Hughes, carol.hughes@asu.edu
480-965-6375 direct line | 480-254-3753 cell

@Natural History Museum in London
Chloe Kembery, press@nhm.ac.uk
+44 (0)20 7942 5654

ASU student awarded prestigious Stegner creative writing fellowship

April 2, 2012

Hugh Martin, who will graduate from the Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program in creative writing at Arizona State University this spring, has received a prestigious Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University.

Stanford’s creative writing program, considered one of the most competitive in the country, awards only 10 fellowships each year (five in poetry, five in fiction) from an international pool of over 1,700 applicants. Download Full Image

Fellows are regarded as working artists, intent upon practicing and perfecting their craft. There are no curricular requirements other than workshop attendance and writing. The program offers no degree. Martin is one of five poets selected for the honor.

The two-year fellowship provides a stipend of $26,000 to each fellow per academic year and covers tuition and health insurance. The program allows writers to hone their skills while receiving guidance from Stanford’s distinguished creative writing faculty.

The fellowship program was named after celebrated writer and environmentalist Wallace Stegner in 1946. Anyone may apply, regardless of age, education, or experience. Admission is based solely on quality of writing samples.

“We choose people who are by now pretty well published and probably will either leave the program with a book and a contract or with a finished book. That’s what we expect. Many of the people who come here have already been in writing programs, already have their MFAs,” said Eavan Boland, director of the program, in a recent interview with The Stanford Review.

Martin becomes the second ASU student, and the first from the MFA program, to be selected for the honor. Arizona native Adam Johnson, who earned his undergraduate degree from ASU, was a Stegner fellow from 1999-2001 and currently serves on the creative writing faculty at Stanford.

“While the Stegner Fellowship provides Hugh a wonderful opportunity to continue to develop his poetry, it also speaks to the very fine work he’s done as a student here,” said Peter Turchi, director of creative writing and director of the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing at ASU. “He’s been a tremendous contributor to ASU’s creative writing community.”

The Stegner Fellowships were originally aimed at WWII-era returning servicemen. This is fitting for Martin, who served six years in the Army National Guard (based out of Stow, Ohio) and spent 11 months in Iraq in 2004. Most of Martin’s work is reflective of his experiences in Iraq.

“Some of my goals when writing involve exploring those aspects of war outside of actual fighting, attacks – all those things that come to mind when thinking of typical stories of war,” said Martin in a recent online interview with Willow Springs. “My goal was to make each section vivid and strong enough to give the reader a clear idea of what each soldier is like as a human being, and possibly what issues cross the soldiers’ minds regarding their own lives, outside of and away from the war.”

Martin, who was influenced by the poetry of Isaac Rosenberg, Wilfred Owen, Randall Jarrell, Muriel Rukeyser, Denise Levertov, Yusef Komunyakaa, Bruce Weigl and Tim O'Brien, said the past three years he spent in ASU’s MFA program gave him the confidence to apply for the fellowship.

“The overall environment of the program was extremely beneficial to my writing life.  The feedback I've received these past three years from professors and peers has been absolutely crucial in polishing my work, diminishing bad writing habits, and overall, simply honing my writing and revising techniques,” he said. “Listening and participating in countless workshops, in the classrooms at ASU, and even on Global Fellowships in places such as Prague, I've been able to see my writing more objectively and in a way, detach myself from the personal experiences I'm writing from and simply do what's best for the individual poem.”

Martin will relocate to Palo Alto, Calif. later this summer and start the fellowship in September. He hopes to continue work on his current manuscript and possibly begin work on another.

“Stanford, much like ASU’s program, has a fantastic reading series and a great visiting writer program that can obviously keep that creative energy alive and introduce the fellows to new writers and philosophies,” said Martin.  “I hope to continue to be pushed and challenged by the writers and professors within the Stegner community.”

Martin is a native of Macedonia, Ohio and a graduate of Muskingum University. His poems have been published, or are forthcoming, in Consequence Magazine, The American Poetry Review, Mid-American Review, The Kenyon Review, Narrative, Willow Springs, Alaska Quarterly Review, Nashville Review, and Gargoyle. His chapbook, "So, How Was the War?" (Kent State UP, 2010) was published by the Wick Poetry Center. He has served as poetry editor of ASU’s acclaimed literary journal Hayden’s Ferry Review, and his work was recently selected as part of the 7th Avenue Streetscape Series in downtown Phoenix.

Ken Kesey workshopped his novel-in-progress One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest during his time at Stanford, and the fellowships have attracted many talented writers over its sixty-five year history. A partial list includes Raymond Carver, Philip Levine, ZZ Packer, Samantha Chang, Wendell Berry, Tobias Wolff, Robert Pinsky, Vikram Seth, and Scott Turow.


The following are two poems Martin submitted with his Stegner fellowship application.

This Morning, We Carry Body Bags,


brand-new, still sealed in plastic wrap,
pile them in the back of the truck.
The dip bulges from LTs lip and I imagine


bullets against the truck
like horizontal rain.
Before dawn,


four men shot
six Iraqi soldiers dead
as they slept on cots,
dragged outside the checkpoint hut


because it was too hot.
At the Jalula hospital, traffic stops. Men smoke
in white dishdashas that wave
in the wind like bed sheets. From the hills,


a Black Hawk rises. We close eyes,
cover faces, not wanting to feel
flying pieces of earth. Four men run


the first body to the chopper;
it bounces on the green gurney
beneath an IV bag held
by a hand to the sky.

After Curfew

            —Jalula Police Station

A black dog sniffs the bag of smashed tomatoes
beneath the blinking lamppost.
Daud, the bum with bandaged feet,
snores face-down on a piece of cardboard
beside the concertina wire that catches trash.
There hasn’t been a gunshot all night.
Inside, the drunk we put in the jail cell
vomits into a bucket.  The police don’t speak English,
so we smile, give the thumbs-up, and say good
as they point at our machine-guns, flashlights,
Night-Vision, and other equipment
they don’t have.  When there’s nothing left to point at,
two of them open the doors of a Nissan Jeep,
turn up the radio’s volume.
A Kurdish lute scratches
over a man’s singing voice, his pitch
somewhere between a cry and a scream.
Next to the black streams, under a lamp like a spotlight,
three police, slowly, begin to dance.  They lip-sync
through cigarettes, blow breaths of smoke at the sky,
hold their loaded Kalashnikovs
against their bodies, a hand on the butt,
a hand on the muzzle, and their feet shuffle,
their heads roll in slow circles;
they follow the rifle’s lead.