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Monday, 25 February 2008

Led Astray By An Insect

An article at Environmental Graffiti "New Encyclopaedia Includes Every Living Thing on Earth", brought back feelings of nostalgia. The work is a catalogue of all known species of animal and plant.

Years ago I had the honour of being taught by one of the world’s most respected ecologists. Part of the work of the lab was the preparation of what are called dichotomous guides. Books for the identification of animal and plant species. Ours were for different kinds of freshwater macro invertebrates.

One morning coming into the lab I saw a small parcel addressed to the Prof, but with a return address of the University of Kiev. Interesting I thought, but it was soon forgotten as we were on something to do with DNA that day.

Lesson ended. "Are you free for a while Roger?" The Prof inquired.
"Would you be able to do me a favour and identify an insect species for me?" Asked the Prof.
"Yes, no problem." Was my stupid reply. Why one of the world’s leading experts on insects would want me to identify a species for him didn’t really register.

So I sat myself down with the creature in question under a binocular microscope.
5 minutes, 10 minutes. Straightaway I knew it was a Corixidae, a water boatman. Then I started using parts of the guide I had ever been before.

Every time I ended up with a species from the east side of a Loch in the Shetland Isles Northern Scotland. I didn’t even think it was that. Frustration and self doubt set in. 5 minutes was now 1 hour. Again and again I tried. Every time I ended up in a Loch in Northern Scotland. If that wasn’t remote enough, it was only the closest I could get. This little creature lying there under my microscope wasn’t even that species.

Finally in despair I gave up.

"Identified it then?" Asked the Prof.
"Well I thought it was a species from the Shetland Isles, well that’s the closest I can get. But I don’t think it is that. No I don’t know what it is. I give up, I don’t know."
"Good." Said the Prof, "It was sent from Kiev this morning. The Professor couldn’t identify it and thought it was a new species. Thought I’d give it to you to have a go. I’ll get back in touch and tell him he has got a new one."

Suckered by a Water Boatman At least 25 years on it’s in the new book.

When I read the Environmental Graffiti article I had a little panic about the number of species of animal and plant. They said 1.8 million known species. I had been using a generic "anything up to 60 million" when I wrote.

After a quick check around, such as this from Commondreams.org, Animal Extinction, there could be up to 100 million species.

So that’s a book over 50 times thicker than the Environmental Graffiti article, if we don’t make them extinct before we record them.

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