Count all the things: towards a Biota of Canada

As the second anniversary of this blog approaches, I’ve been reading back through some of my older posts. In 2011, I talked about the fact that we don’t know how many species live here (“we” meaning “Canadians”; “here” meaning “in our own country”— a fairly large, scientifically-advanced, stable, well-off, not-terribly-biodiverse country). It would be great, for many reasons, to find out how many species live in Canada. That sounds simple enough. Except that it isn’t. Birds are easy. Mammals too. We’ve got a pretty good handle on most of our vertebrates. The community of vascular plant people has made some great strides towards documenting Canadian plant diversity. But not all taxa are going to be so easy. The great majority of our species are the small, diverse, similar-looking, hard to collect, hard to identify, mostly unnamed majority. That includes arthropods. Figuring out how many species of terrestrial arthropods live in Canada would colour in a huge slice of the big pie chart of our diversity. The main challenge is that we lack the crayons (as it were). It’s going to be a big job. Nevertheless, the Biological Survey of Canada has made colouring this big pie chart one of its main goals since it was founded more than 30 years ago.

The BSC was by no means the first group to come up with the idea to document the species living in Canada (it’s a logical idea; it’s just really difficult to translate it into reality). It’s a historical year for entomology in Canada (the 150th anniversary of the Entomological Society of Canada), so it seems like as good a year as any to talk about some history.

Materials for a Fauna Canadensis

The idea of a biological inventory of Canada is older than the country of Canada itself. Five years before Confederation, in September 1862, William Hincks published a small paper in The Canadian Journal proposing this very idea.

Professor Hincks' big idea

Professor Hincks’ big idea.

At the time, Hincks was a pretty influential figure in “Canadian” science. In 1853 he was appointed as the first Professor of Natural History at University College, Toronto, and was pretty well-connected throughout the scientific community.

(Historical trivia note 1: the other leading candidate for the Toronto position in 1853 was a far more qualified, and better known, English naturalist named Thomas Henry Huxley. Yes. That Thomas Henry Huxley. Hincks was offered the job instead. It was . . . political).

(Historical trivia note 2: in 1863, Hincks was the Chair at the first official meeting of the newly formed Entomological Society of Canada).

In his paper, Hincks noted:

The difficulties attending the study of every branch of Natural History in Canada, are greatly aggravated by the want of books fitted to afford the student, in a convenient and scientific form, such assistance as the present state of our knowledge renders practicable.

In modernspeak: “we know lots of things that live here, but there’s no easy way to identify them”.

Hincks felt that if a committed group of people started to assemble all that knowledge we did have about the animals of Canada (he had a whole separate plan for a Flora Canadensis), we could eventually assemble a complete compendium, with names, diagnostic information, geographic distributions, etc. for all our species. There was a key statement in Hincks’ overview of the project:

It has occurred to me that the publication in this Journal of fragmentary portions of a provisional Fauna Canadensis might contribute not a little both to assist the cultivators of Zoological Science and to accumulate  useful materials for future labourers who may be enabled to attempt what would now be premature,—a general systematic work on Canadian Zoology.

Hincks realized that the task of compiling a complete zoological inventory of Canada (a much smaller region in 1862 than it is today) was impossible at that time, but that we knew enough about some groups that we could at least make a start on components of the big catalog. Hincks went on in that paper, and subsequently, to present some examples of his proposed approach, with a synopsis of several groups of aquatic insects, perhaps to whet people’s appetites for getting on board with the project. Hincks, unfortunately, died a few years later and his grand vision never saw completion.

Fast forward just over a century.

Canada and its Insect Fauna

1979 was a pivotal year in documenting the diversity of Canadian terrestrial arthropods. The recently launched Biological Survey of Canada (Terrestrial Arthropods), headed by H.V. Danks, published Canada and its Insect Fauna. This 573-page compendium drew together the collective knowledge, wisdom and educated guesses of 60 specialists (mostly Canadian) to enumerate how many species of terrestrial and freshwater arthropods (insects, arachnids and others) we knew to exist in Canada and, perhaps just as importantly, to estimate how many species remained to be discovered. The final count was just over 33,000 recorded species and almost that many still undescribed or unrecorded in Canada. Canada and its Insect Fauna wasn’t meant to be the final word. It was a starting point.

And then?

One of the more frequently uttered phrases among my colleagues in Canadian arthropod biodiversity is “I still pull my Canada and its Insect Fauna off the shelf all the time!”. Well, that’s both high praise for this monumental volume, and a somewhat sobering realization that 34 years on, we haven’t replaced it with anything newer. Some major taxa and some regions have been completely updated quite recently, but for others (my own favorite group, the Diptera, for example) we still rely on numbers that are more than a generation out of date (and that’s a human generation, not an insect generation!). Clearly, we have some work to do.

Where to from here?

There are a lot of differences between the way we collect, package and share biodiversity information now compared to 1979. This work is no longer done only by specialists, and the products are used by a wide range of individuals and agencies. The digital revolution means that The Book is no longer the only method of presenting all this information.

If we hope to update our knowledge of the arthropods of Canada, and to move toward a complete understanding of our biota, and if we hope to make this knowledge accessible to a wide array of users, we’ll need to think outside the pages. And we’ll almost certainly need to do it a few pieces at a time, as William Hincks realized 151 years ago. But there are lots of ways to do that. That’s a topic for the next post.

One small collector, one big country (Windy Pass, YT)

One small collector, one big country (Windy Pass, YT)

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About terry wheeler

professor, museum director, entomologist, ecologist, naturalist
This entry was posted in Science Culture and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Count all the things: towards a Biota of Canada

  1. Greg Pohl says:

    I agree it’s high time for an update on what lives here. But I disagree that we need to do it a few pieces at a time. Canadian entomologists have been adding small bits of information for over a century. Instead of waiting until the last Canadian species gets described before we produce the list, may I suggest that it’s high time to summarize what we already know, as a provisional list. It means setting aside the taxonomic work for a bit, to do some library work and data mining. But it can be done, as has been demonstrated for big groups like Coleoptera and Lepidoptera. We just need to stop focussing on the details we don’t yet know, and recognise that what we already know is worth sharing.

    • Hi Greg, Yes, it comes down to what people define as a “piece”, doesn’t it? I suspect we both see a provisional list of the species we DO already know to be in Canada as a single piece that is attainable, at least for the insects and arachnids. We may never describe ALL the species of ALL taxa in Canada but yes, there’s absolutely no point waiting. The leps and beetles are two great examples of big taxa in which the community has managed to work together to compile the current state of the art, substantially updated since 1979, and some other taxa have similarly been covered. We now need to find a way to do that with the remaining orders, and I think that having those first few orders completed may be the motivation needed to get the others moving along. In discussions about all this over the last couple of years it’s been very illuminating to see different people’s views on what we can and cannot do, what we should and should not do, and how best to get there.

  2. Pingback: Many ways forward: towards a Biota of Canada | Lyman Entomological Museum

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