how many species?

One of the fundamental rules of running a business is that you have to keep track of your inventory. If you don’t know what’s in the warehouse, or who works for you, you’re not going to get very far as a manager. I think about this every time somebody asks me how many species of flies live in Quebec, or how many species of insects there are in Canada, or how many beetles there are on the island of Montreal. The answer to all three questions is the same – “we don’t know”

Now, as embarrassing as that answer is, it’s not because I didn’t study, or because I can’t be bothered to look it up; it’s because we (“we” being the scientific community) simply DO NOT KNOW.

In 1979 a newly minted group called the Biological Survey of Canada published a book called Canada and its Insect Fauna edited by H.V. Danks, but containing the collected wisdom of the  Canadian entomological community. And the purpose of that book was to describe the state of our knowledge of the terrestrial arthropods of Canada. The question was “how many species?”. The answer was “33,672”. End of story? Not a chance. Because the other key number in that list was “32,826” – that’s a ballpark, top-of-the-head estimate of how many MORE species were living in Canada but remained unrecorded or undescribed. That number is an underestimate.

So, that means that in our own country, where the insects we study are running or flying or crawling or swimming around underfoot, we know less than half of our own species. It’s not because of a fundamental laziness in the entomological community (we’re a hard-working crew!); it’s simply because insects are difficult and diverse, and because there are only so many of us to get the job done.

In the 30-odd years since Canada and its Insect Fauna was published, the Biological Survey of Canada has continued to persevere in documenting the Canadian arthropod fauna. We know a lot more now than we did then, but there’s still a long way to go. New species are sitting preserved in our collections waiting to be discovered and described. New records are running around in our back yards waiting to be documented. Many habitats and regions of Canada have been explored in only a passing way for most arthropod groups. When potential new students come to my lab and ask if there are any good projects to do on taxonomy or phylogeny or inventory of insects around here the first thing I do is pull up a chair for them. They’ll need to get comfy – it takes a while to run through the list.

Nothing gets a job done like spouting optimism, and the entomologists of Canada are, on the whole, a pretty optimistic crew. The job ahead is enormous, but with a great group of people chipping away, we will get the job done. Canada and its Insect Fauna II is the goal we need to aim for.

Why? Because arthropods are intimately connected to every single terrestrial ecosystem in this country. Insects and spiders and mites and their little-known relatives are the mechanics and engineers and drivers and barometers of life on earth and we won’t truly understand, or be able to manage or conserve, those ecosystems until we know who is doing the work.

About terry wheeler

professor, museum director, entomologist, ecologist, naturalist
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7 Responses to how many species?

  1. David P. Shothouse says:

    Thanks for the rallying post. How do you propose a “Canada and its Insect Fauna II” be constructed? And, surely this wouldn’t be a paper-only initiative, but will have the capacity to be kept up-to-date.

  2. Yes, the “how” is the real question, isn’t it? I’ll tackle the easy question first – definitely not paper only! I’m a great lover of books, but printed catalogs are static. Species catalogs, more than anything, need to be dynamic; if we are doing our job as biodiversity scientists and taxonomists, then they should be growing all the time. Other initiatives such as Canadensys, GBIF, EOL, Fauna Europaea and the Atlas of Living Australia are showing the way, and the way is electronic. If we can generate on-demand printed versions for particular taxa along the way, so much the better.

    As for constructing the thing – “all at once” would be daunting at best, and impossible in the short term, given how many taxa remain virtually unknown here (I’m thinking of some lower Diptera families, a few groups of mites, etc.). However, we have been and are making great strides in our knowledge of some taxa, and some regions. So we can build the thing a piece at a time. This is another great advantage of on-line catalogs – we won’t be waiting for the final straggler taxon to roll in so we can launch the whole thing at once. We have, for example, much greater knowledge of the Canadian Coleoptera fauna than we did in 1979, and a very motivated group of people is updating the list all the time. Our knowledge of Lepidoptera has received a great boost in recent years, especially in some provinces. We’re in the process of adding large numbers of known species across several taxa in the arctic. Spiders. Phthiraptera, Hemiptera and some higher Diptera have received lots of attention in the past several years. I could go on. There is a huge pile of taxa in the Job Jar, but the way forward, in my opinion, is to pull out the easy pieces first, in taxa or regions for which we have motivated and active groups of people. If we start building the framework on those, it may be easier to convince other colleagues, or train students, to target additional groups to fill in the gaps.

    I think that our role, as the Biological Survey of Canada, is to identify those easy pieces, and the people who can take them on, and get Phase 1 underway. Think big, start small.

    • David P. Shothouse says:

      “I think that our role, as the Biological Survey of Canada, is to identify those easy pieces, and the people who can take them on, and get Phase 1 underway. Think big, start small.”

      Surely the Biological Survey of Canada can do more than that. As you say, great strides are being made with many fauna. But, in what format are these compilations? Where do they reside? What’s the product? How much additional effort will be required to make existing compilations machine-ready? Isn’t it also time to centralize or at least make some very strong recommendations on how to produce consistently structured lists? No one wants the onerous chore of re-keying and reconciling compilations.

      • Hi David. Absolutely – the BSC can and, I hope, will do more than that. But we have to start somewhere. When I cited those examples in the previous comment I guess it was implicit (at least in my mind) that the information would be brought together in a standard format. We have the DarwinCore for that, and initiatives such as Canadensys to use as a model for both specimen-based and literature-based records. There are two big jobs here: one is to assemble the species and specimen-level information (as I alluded to in my previous comment), the other is to ensure that the products (whatever number or form they may take) will be consistently structured, machine-ready, etc. as you outlined in your response. Both jobs are critical and one cannot really proceed without the other. But I also recognize that some people will be much more interested in doing one than the other, so the key is to make sure we, as a community, keep talking and keep collaborating. It’s been working very well with Canadensys. It wasn’t my intention in the original post to lay out the road map for HOW to achieve all this, simply to point out that we CAN if enough people get together on this and view the enterprise as a series of attainable goals rather than a single, enormous undertaking. Will it take a change in the way the BSC does bizniz? Yes.

  3. Pingback: From grass to graphs: a fly’s journey. Part 2 | Lyman Entomological Museum

  4. Pingback: The joy of not knowing | Lyman Entomological Museum

  5. Pingback: Count all the things: towards a Biota of Canada | Lyman Entomological Museum

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