Little Creatures Need To Be Studied, Too
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EARTH 'DEPENDS ON CREEPY-CRAWLIES'
By Alex Kirby
Monday, 14 October, 2002
Two leading British scientists are calling for a switch of research effort
towards some of the Earth's smallest creatures.
They say we know far too little about most of the other species that share
the planet with us.
It is humans' success, they argue, that threatens so many other species with
And the situation is so grave they believe we are approaching the Earth's
sixth mass extinction.
The scientists are Lord May, president of the Royal Society (the UK's
national academy of sciences), and Professor John Lawton, chief executive of
the Natural Environment Research Council (Nerc).
Briefing journalists in London on the future for the Earth's biodiversity,
both said the success of humans in dominating and populating the world left
an increasingly small space for other species.
"The underlying cause of accelerated extinction rates is simply too many
people", said Lord May.
Unnaturally rapid extinction
"Most conservation effort goes into birds and mammals -- creatures like the
panda, a dim, dead-end animal that was probably on the way out anyway.
"Yet arguably it's the little things that run the world, things like soil
microbes. They're the least-known species of all -- scientists like
something sexier to work on.
"We don't know, possibly to a factor of ten, how many species there are on
Earth. But if the better-known ones are reasonably typical, we're looking at
an extinction rate a thousand times faster than in the fossil record -- and
"We know of about 1.7-1.8 million species -- ten times the number of books
in the US Library of Congress.
"Many of those are dead useless, but they all have a card index entry. We
have nothing like that for the Earth's species, no global book of life.
"Yet we're burning the books in our biological library faster than we're
able to read them."
Professor Lawton said: "The looming extinction crisis we face goes to the
heart of the human enterprise.
"We are consuming about half of all the available resources on Earth, and
the rate is growing exponentially -- it's doubling every 30 to 50 years.
"It beggars belief that politicians don't realise this, though it's easy
enough for them to identify al-Qaeda as a threat.
"We don't have inventories for creatures like nematode worms, tiny things
about a millimetre long.
"They make nutrients available to plants, they make the soil work -- and we
don't know how many there are.
"We live on a little-known planet. Imagine being an astronomer without a
Professor Lawton told BBC News Online: "Forget the charismatic mega-fauna.
I'd like to see much more research going into things smaller than a
"If I had my time again, I'd look at nematodes, soil micro-organisms and
"They're the unsung heroes of the natural world, and we know next to nothing
The bell tolls
The Royal Society has formed a working group to produce a strategy for
identifying and conserving species and habitats.
The World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg last month
agreed to work for a "significant" slowing of biodiversity loss by 2010. But
the Society says there is no international consensus on how to measure
progress towards the target.
Professor Peter Crane, of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, chairs the working
He said: "The loss of biodiversity threatens the survival of some of the
world's poorest people and closes down options for sustainable development
in the future."
Professor Crane told BBC News Online: "In many parts of the world
biodiversity is in terrible shape.
"There's no question the alarm bell is ringing. What we need are clear,
credible measurements to bring its message home."
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