Jonathan Coddington is the head of research and collections at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History. He recently told (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129212121) National Public Radio's Guy Raz that the thousands of jars of specimens held by the museum — including marine specimens from the Gulf — are an invaluable resource for scientists. In the case of the Gulf oil spill disaster, they provide a comparison point: if a scientist needs to know how oil have affected crab larve after the spill, it helps to know the characteristics of crab larve before the spill, for example. Each specimen is a recording of the animal, its characteristics, its environment and other details at a particular moment in time. At the KU Biodiversity Institute, we have more than 8 million such research specimens and tissue samples preserved in jars, freezers and cabinets.
Wired.com recently published an article about the decline of taxonomists over recent years. In the mid-1990s, in response to concerns about disappearing taxonomic expertise, the US National Science Foundation established the PEET program — Partnerships for Enhancing Expertise in Taxonomy. It was designed for taxonomic experts to train their successors before those experts retired or died. But it is not taxonomists of all organisms that PEET trains: the program announcement specifies “poorly known organisms,” which is generally meant to exclude vertebrates, “higher plants,” and commercially valuable taxa. KU has been successful in training taxonomists with PEET grants — three of the first 20 such grants awarded came to KU people, and two of the first renewals made in the PEET program were to KU scientists.
The biodiversity that is eligible for PEET funding represents the vast majority of life on earth. The number of people who can identify such organisms and describe new species of them continues to decline. This is a world-wide problem, which is ironic because ostensible interest in biodiversity has never been higher. People are concerned about conservation and extinction. But if nobody is capable of accurately identifying the sea spiders of coral reefs, for example, how can we know if any are endangered?A look at the natural history museums of the world illustrates the imbalance between the world’s biodiversity and the taxonomists employed to deal with it. In the animal realm, all major museums employ taxonomists of fishes, birds, mammals, reptiles and/or amphibians, and insects; commonly the vertebrates and insects are in separate departments, and in many museums there are three or four departments for the vertebrates. All the other kinds of animals that exist, excluding single-celled organisms — something around 30 major groups (phyla) – are typically dealt with by taxonomists in one department. So at any time, there may be a few taxonomists in the entire world employed to study animals of any major group that might have thousands of species, not to mention crucial ecological importance.
Ideas continually arise for remedying the shortage, and making sure that knowledge of a particular group does not die out entirely. Just this month a “Recovery plan for the endangered taxonomy profession” was published in BioScience by David L. Pearson, Andrew L. Hamilton, and Terry L. Erwin. We taxonomists continue to inventory organisms, train our successors, and try to remind people that the poorly studied organisms on earth include those we admire (such as the corals that make coral reefs), those we eat (such as cockles and mussels), those that aerate our soil (such as earthworms), and those that supply us with decoration (such as pearls) and other materials (such as sponges and our birds’ cuttle bones).
The word “fossil” often conjures images of Tyrannosaurus rex skulls, mammoth femurs, or other large bones. But those aren’t the only ones that survive through the millennia, and certainly aren’t the only ones that have importance.
KU Biodiversity Institute graduate students Sarah Spears and Kathryn Mickle study prehistoric fishes. Their fossils are so small that, in order to get them ready for study, Sarah and Kathryn have to use tiny tools to remove excess rock. Sometimes, even metal tools are too rough and inexact, so they switch over to porcupine quills — just sharp and flexible enough to clean tiny fish bones.