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In Search of Bugs

, premieres on PBS, April 17).

By | March 28, 2005

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This spring's US television season will feature dueling zoologists, as Ruud "Bugman" Kleinpaste (Buggin' With Ruud, premieres on Animal Planet, June 15) takes on Martin "Spiderman" Nicholas (Nature: Deep Jungle, premieres on PBS, April 17). Both come from the "kids, don't try this at home" school of science television. New Zealander Kleinpaste allows himself to be covered in killer bees to demonstrate the power of pheromones. The UK's Nicholas says, "Don't touch this venomous spider," and then, of course, he does.

Both represent a Victorian gentleman's view of science as exotic adventure, which seems anachronistic these days when the only thing one is likely to be chasing is an errant Drosophila in the lab. It's hard to imagine that many real, professional scientists are slogging through jungles collecting insects and arachnids.

Still, the approach taken by Kleinpaste and Nicholas may remind the public, and funding agencies, that good zoology research requires such work. "Neither scientists nor society will support the work of collecting and naming insects," says Malcom Burrows, head of the Zoology Department at Cambridge University. "Yet it's extremely important. Even people who do work on Drosophila don't have the classifications [they need]."

The lack of funding has often left ambitious collecting to amateurs, at least in the United Kingdom, says the Spiderman, who does not hold a graduate degree in biology. He funds his worldwide expeditions through his work designing water treatment systems, and he is paid for his television appearances. "This is only my perspective, but it seems the field-work of scientists from institutions (when actually allowed) is on a tighter and tighter brief, and the concept of doing something as nebulous as 'just looking for something new' would never be funded by any self-respecting university," Nicholas writes in an E-mail.

"The unfortunate reality with amateur collecting in the Victorian era and indeed today is that the driver for the majority of collecting trips is profit," he continues. "In the 19th century this would have been for 'gentlemen' ... collectors back in [Europe], with the collected animals euthanized, formaldehyded, and pinned onto cards. These days the goal is to bring something new into culture in Europe or North America, preferably something new and spectacular whose offspring can be sold for top dollar."

Although the United States invests more money at the professional level, investigators still fear that both the general public and even some fellow scientists are grossly underestimating the challenges left for systematic biology. "We don't know how many species of organisms we have on this planet, even to the nearest order of magnitude," says James B. Woolley of Texas A&M University, and a former program director at the National Science Foundation. "There's a real urgency to this, because a lot of that diversity is disappearing faster than we can get a handle on it. We've got maybe one generation left that can get out there and get some sort of handle on what biological diversity is on this planet."

What underlies their concern is that outside of the field of taxonomy, most people do not understand just how truly complicated is the idea of what a species is. "The [introductory-level] class my students hate the most is the one where I tell them there's six different definitions for what is a species," says Felix Sperling of the University of Alberta, Canada. "In my [advanced] class, I spend weeks on how you decide if things are different species or not." The actual number of definitions is closer to 60.

Talk for long enough with a specialist and you will find flaws in nearly every concept used for species identification. "It's like a set problem; a species is the minimal set that doesn't show variation," says Randall Schuh, curator and chair, Division of Invertebrate Zoology, American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), "but there's no single kind of attribute that allows you to recognize what's a species." Consider what happens to even the most seemingly basic concept, reproductive isolation, if you apply it to plants. This is one reason why Paul Herbert's "DNA barcode" concept, in which specimens could be checked against a genetic database, has generated so much buzz along with cautions that it not be viewed as a definitive tool.

Most importantly, the specimens still need to be found. That leaves Charles Lydeard of the NSF, which does fund-collecting trips, optimistic for "traditional" systematicists. "The molecular types can't survive without the traditional types," he says. "Where are they going to get samples from?" Indeed, underscoring just how much fieldwork remains to be done, Brian Wiegmann of North Carolina State University says, referring to the enormous Kinsey gall wasp collection now housed at AMNH, "If you're interested in species, five million wasps is one data point."

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