Wanted: A Complete Catalog of
Creatures and Plants
Chytrids are not something people generally worry about. Yet
this little-known group of fungi made news in 1998 when it
was linked with a rash of frog deaths in Australia and
It had taken frog researchers several years to locate a
chytrid specialist capable of identifying the deadly
fungus, and even then the experts were surprised. "We
didn't know that any [chytrids] were parasites of
vertebrates," says Martha Powell, a chytrid specialist
at the University of Alabama.
Chytrids aren't alone in being poorly classified. Only about 1.5 million species have been identified so far out of the thirteen million or so thought currently to exist (some estimates of the overall number are closer to 30 million). The gargantuan challenge of collecting and describing examples of all these unknown species falls to a steadily shrinking pool of scientists known as systematic biologists. With the advent of high-tech molecular techniques for studying evolutionary relationships, taxonomythe science of species classificationhas come to seem faintly antiquated, even though biological research collections "remain the ultimate source of knowledge about the identity, relationships, and properties of the species with which we share the Earth," according to Stephen Blackmore, chair of the Systematics Forum in the United Kingdom, who wrote about the problem in 1997 for the journal Science.
But even as "the inescapable need to know more about the diversity of life on Earth remains largely unmet," wrote Blackmore, "declining funds are limiting the ability of institutes around the world to respond
." As of 1996, there were only about 7,000 systematists in the world, a workforce that Blackmore and others deem "clearly inadequate."
Says James Rodman, NSF program director for systematics, "There are very few people studying the obscure groups" of species and many of those experts are beginning to retire.
One way the National Science Foundation is trying to address the problem is through its Partnerships for Enhancing Expertise in Taxonomy (PEET) program. PEET funds systematic biologists working to identify understudied groups like the chytrids. In fact, Powell and her colleagues are now working under a PEET grant to train at least three new Ph.D.s in the systematic biology of chytrids. Besides training the next generation of systematists, PEET projects are also making what is known about these species more widely available through the development of Web-accessible databases that contain information such as identification keys, photographs, distribution maps, and DNA sequences.
"Systematists," wrote Blackmore, "hold the key to providing knowledge about biodiversity." Knowing more about how the world functions requires learning more about each of the world's parts, however small.