Mission critical: Species explorers propose steps to map biosphere

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.

“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