My name is Phoebe Buguey, and I am also a library intern at the California Academy of Sciences this semester. I am working in the library inside of the Naturalist Center as well as the Academy Library, which is part of the Research Division of the Academy. My areas of study in both libraries are reference and the creation of educational materials, and for my first blog post, I will continue in an educational vein and discuss a concept that is critical to both the Academy and the world as a whole: biodiversity.
In 2006 the United Nations declared that 2010 would be the International Year of Biodiversity (IYB), the purpose of which is “to increase understanding of the vital role that biodiversity plays in sustaining life on Earth” (http://www.cbd.int/2010/welcome/). According to the IYB Webpage, humans have identified 1.75 million species, but there are still millions of species left to be discovered, and scientists predict that the exact value lies somewhere between 2.25 to 100 million species. Calculating these numbers is challenging since many of the unidentified species are most likely microorganisms (bacteria, fungi, worms, and arthropods such as insects) that can be hard or even impossible to see with the unaided eye.
Several moths from Illustrations of exotic entomology. (v.12 plates). Image courtesy Biodiversity Heritage Library. http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org
Additionally, these unidentified, tiny organisms generally have a short generation time, which means that they reproduce rapidly and in large numbers even though their life spans may be relatively short. The quick cycling of generations in species such as these means that in a given period of time these organisms are more likely to undergo evolutionary change than species with longer generation times, and such change may lead to speciation, which is the evolutionary process that gives rise to new species. For instance, imagine a rare species of marine bacteria that is thriving on the ocean floor: it exists today in a certain form, but by the time it is discovered 100 years from now, it could be entirely changed and may in fact be two or three different species. In essence, since all species change, it is very hard to get a concrete grasp on the diversity of the planet, and since the types of species that we know the least about are those who are physically small and evolve quickly, comprehensive classification can be even more daunting than one may suspect.
Why is biodiversity important?
Ecological studies have demonstrated that the phrase the “circle of life” continues to be an appropriate natural descriptor of the interconnectedness of ecosystems, biomes, and the biosphere as a whole. We now know that preserving the entire ecosystem is central to saving species of interest, and beyond that important point, preservation focused on biodiversity can reap economic benefits as well. Sadly, even with the knowledge of both the biological and fiscal significance of biodiversity, the IYB Website reports that we are still losing species at up to 1000 times the natural background rate.
Artist labeled Didelphis cynocephala but in fact the original illustration of Thylacinus cynocephalus, or the thylacine, in Transactions of the Linnean Society. (v.9 1808). Image courtesy Biodiversity Heritage Library. http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org
The dramatic extinctions of large and interesting species such as the dodo or the thylacine are usually well documented. Many people know about the 17th-century die-out of the dodo, and although fewer people may know about the 20th-century extinction of the thylacine—the largest documented carnivorous marsupial of contemporary times—it is still an important footnote in biodiversity history. However, the disappearance of smaller organisms is hard or even impossible to document. For instance, E.O. Wilson, world famous entomologist and sociobiologist, claims that there are more microorganisms in a spoonful of rich, healthy soil than there are people on planet Earth. When you stop to consider the dramatic ways in which humans change the face of the planet while keeping in mind the estimate that countless species could exist within a few square inches of soil, it’s easy to see why the current extinction rate is so elevated.
What exactly does all this have to do with libraries? Please stay tuned for my next post to learn about the Academy Library’s role in researching and preserving biodiversity.