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Researchers bid for big-science biodiversity.

Now that politicians rank biodiversity high on the world's list of environmental priorities, scientists intimately involved with identifying Earth's plants and animals are calling for a sixfold increase in funding for their work.

This week, three groups representing these scientists, known as systematists, released a draft of "Systematics Agenda 2000: Charting the Biosphere." This policy paper urges systematists to discover, inventory, describe, and classify all existing organisms within the next 25 years. To do that, international support for systematics must increase to $3 billion per year, according to the report.

With current manpower and funding--about $500 million worldwide annually--that task would take 150 years, says Joel L. Cracraft, an ornithologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Systematists estimate that as many as 90 percent of the world's species have not been discovered. Yet according to a report by the National Research Council, more than half of those organisms are likely to disappear by the year 2010 -- taking with them their potential economic value -- if the current rate of habitat destruction continues.

For example, scientists have discovered that several endangered woody mints found in Florida give off potent insect-repelling aromas, says John Fitzpatrick of the Archbold Biological Station in Lake Placid, Fla. Only recently did plant taxonomists realize these mints represent five species (one of which has not yet been described in the scientific literature). That information helped guide their analyses of compounds in these plants, Fitzpatrick reported last week at the 16th Annual Spring Systematics Symposium of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.

"These things are really, really closely related, and yet they are really different in their biochemistry," notes Cracraft. One mint grows only in a lot behind a bowling alley; the others are no better off.

Thus, proponents of this agenda are urging their colleagues to work harder to gain the attention of the public and of governments and other funding agencies before it is too late. "We've been thinking too small for too long; we must make ourselves relevant," says George Rabb. who heads the Brookfield (Ill.) Zoo. "We need more boldness: We need to unite and be more effective politically."

With support from the National Science Foundation, representatives of the Society of Systematic Biologists, the Willi Henning Society, and the American Society of Plant Taxonomists worked for two years to develop the agenda, which seeks to put their discipline on a par with large science initiatives such as the Superconducting Super Collider, space telescopes, or the Human Genome Project.

"There's no reason that biodiversity can't be a big-ticket item," Cracraft told SCIENCE NEWS. "We need to shed physics envy and promote systematics envy and biodiversity envy."

Although the effort began as a strategy for U.S. science, it quickly took on an international focus, Cracraft says. It calls for the building of museums and training of systematists in Mexico, Brazil, Indonesia, Colombia, and other "species-rich" countries. According to the agenda, about 80 percent of the land plants and animals live in countries with barely 6 percent of the scientis who know how to determine what these organisms are and how they are related.

"What we're trying to do is to get other countries to realize they must understand biodiversity in a sophisticated way," Cracraft says.

Such knowledge is worth the investment, he and others argue. They cite the value of biodiversity in providing disease-resistant plant and animal varieties, new genes for improving domesticated animals and crops, and new compounds for the pharmaceutical industry. In addition, colorful coral reef fishes, giant saguaro cacti, magnificent elephant herds, and many other plants and animals lure millions of tourist dollars to otherwise destitute regions.

Furthermore, for countries involved in the Biological Diversity Convention (SN: 6/20/92, p.407), the more species they document, the more aid they may warrant for those resources, says Brian Groombridge of the World Conservation Monitoring Center in Cambridge, England.

As part of this push, researchers recognize the need to get information out of museums and into the hands of policy-makers and others. Thus, like the global climate change programs and the Human Genome Project, the plan calls for costing databases on computer. Ideally, one could gain access to pictures and sounds as well as verbal descriptions electronically, says Cracraft, who coordinated development of the agenda.

That access would help countries make better conservation decisions, says Groombridge. His not-for-profit organization supplies diversity information to governments and engineering companies planning development projects or assessing natural resources. At the systematics symposium, he cited the need for more extensive cataloging of more kinds of organisms. His organization's review of newly reported species indicates that about the same number of new ones is described in each plant and animal group each year. "The way I interpret this is we have a bottleneck in taxonomists," Groombridge says. "This serves to highlight the need for more and continuing [growth in] systematics, not less."

"We're the only ones trained to inventory and analyze species diversity and to understand the phylogenetic relationships," adds Cracraft.

Often, however, young U.S.-trained systematists leave the discipline for lack of faculty or museum positions, complains Hugh Iltis, a plant taxonomist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "There are no jobs; yet there are huge genera that are not described."
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Title Annotation:systematist groups urge classification of all plant and animal species
Author:Pennisi, Elizabeth
Publication:Science News
Date:May 15, 1993
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