Tue, Mar 23, 2010 - Page 9 News List

Meet the new species hunters

Fearing time is running out, scientists are desperately documenting the diversity of the world before it disappears

By Patrick Barkham  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Like most young men, Henry Walter Bates sought adventure. Unlike most, he was also obsessed with beetles. So in 1848, at age 23, he set sail from Liverpool on the trading ship Mischief, bound for Brazil. During 11 years in “savage solitudes,” the naturalist fell ill with malaria, yellow fever and dysentery; he was horribly lonely but, despite physical pain and mental anguish, he kept on collecting rainforest species never before seen by European eyes. When he left South America, never to return, he shipped to the Natural History Museum in London more than 8,000 different species — mostly insects — that were previously unknown to science.

The Victorians’ wonder at the miracles of nature, and their hunger to conquer foreign lands, has long made species hunting seem an anachronistic endeavor. Theirs was an age of never-to-be-repeated mapping of the world’s plants and animals, a time of The Origin of Species and the feting of explorer-scientists such as Bates, Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin.

The discovery and naming of things has never quite captured the public imagination in the same way since.

Yet now, barely a week passes without the breathless announcement of a dramatic new find, from the Sundaland clouded leopard — a species of big cat filmed for the first time in Borneo — to a flesh-eating pitcher plant so large it can devour rats, which was found by a young British species hunter during an expedition to the Philippines.

Suddenly, species hunters and taxonomists can hardly go to work without being followed by a camera crew. Following on from the success of last year’s Lost Land of the Volcano, about species hunters in Papua New Guinea, comes a new BBC series, Museum of Life. Filmed over 18 months, Jimmy Doherty, of Jimmy’s Farm fame, examines the pioneering work of some of the 300 scientists tending to, and augmenting, the Natural History Museum’s collection of 70 million animals, plants, fossils and minerals.

We are, it seems, experiencing “a second wave of exploration that almost matches the Victorians,” says George McGavin, an academic who headed up the Lost Land of the Volcano expedition.

So what is driving this? Even now, the vast majority of life on Earth is still undocumented by science. Scientists estimate there are between 8 million and 10 million species but, from bacteria to blue whales, we have so far only “described” — ie, classified — a million-and-a-half of them. At best, we have named one in six of every type of living thing. Last summer, a mysterious new insect was even found in the Natural History Museum gardens in London. Species hunting scientists are desperate to document the diversity of the world before we destroy it.

Going behind the scenes at the Natural History Museum is a rare treat; this is a working museum as magical as anything in fiction. Dust motes sail across crepuscular alcoves, where curators hunch over miniscule specimens on a gloomy mezzanine floor that looks unchanged from Bates’ day. The smell of naphthalene — mothballs — is overpowering. Maxwell Barclay, head curator of coleoptera and hemiptera (or, beetles) has traveled to Bolivia, Thailand, Taiwan and Peru. Unlike Bates, he collects intensively for just three weeks. Transporting finds is not a problem: Thousands of beetles will pack into a small suitcase.

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