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No. 43: Jan-Feb 1986

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The Biological Diversity Crisis

If life fills all available energy niches, life must be capable of transforming itself (or of being transformed) into a multitude of different energy transducers or energy utilizers. E.O. Wilson has outlined the diversity of terrestrial life in a recent issue of BioScience. The earth, it appears, is a veritable Gene sis Machine; and it is only one planet among a possible infinitude.

So many terrestrial species have already been described that one could easily believe that biological collectors roaming the planet's wild places have just about completed their task. Some recent totals: 47,000 species of vertebrates, 440,000 plants, and 751,000 insects. But we may not even be close to grasping life's diversity on earth! We do well in counting the large mammals and birds, but most insects and microscopic forms of life have escaped description. To illustrate, in 1964, the British ecologist C.B. Williams, combining intensive local sampling and mathematical extrapolation, extimated the insect population as 3 million species. However, by 1985, this figure has been raised ten-fold to 30 million species.

Why the huge jump? For the first time, entomologists had found a way to efficiently sample the canopies of tropical forests. This rich stratum between the sunlight and gloomy forest floor 100+ feet below had been largely neglected before. The slick tree trunks and the attacking swarms of wasps and stinging ants deterred the insect counters. What the collectors did was to fire projectiles with ropes over the high branches and then haul up canisters of a knockdown gas. Insects rained down -- a cloudburst of new species -- neatly collected on sheets spread out below. Such techniques led to the 30-million figure. As Wilson put it, "The pool of diversity is a challenge to basic science and a vast reservoir of genetic information."

(Wilson, Edward O.; "The Biological Diversity Crisis," BioScience, 35:700, 1985.)

Comment. Are there other "hot spots of diversity" waiting to be discovered? Probably, but they will be under our feet, in the deepest waters -- places we do not frequent or suspect. We do know of an ancient mudbank that gave birth to multitudes of new and fantastic creatures. See below.

From Science Frontiers #43, JAN-FEB 1986. 1986-2000 William R. Corliss

Science Frontiers Sourcebook Project Reviewed in:


  • "A sourcebook of unexplained phenomena is therefore a valuable addition to a collection of scientific literature. William R. Corliss has provided this in the past with his source books of scientific anomalies in several subjects, and now he has provided it for astronomy. He has done an excellent job of collecting and editing a large amount of material, taken in part from scientific journals and in part from scientific reporting in the popular or semi-scientific press." -- "The Mysterious Universe: A Handbook of Astronomical Anomalies", reviwed by Thomas Gold, Cornell University, in Icarus, vol.41, 1980

  • "An interesting, systematic presentation of unusual weather [..] This book is recommended for a general audience" --"Corliss, William R., Tornados, Dark Days, Anomalous Precipitation, and Related Weather Phenomena, Sourcebook Project, 1983.", revieweed in Choice, September 1983
  • "..the science is necessarily somewhat speculative, but Corliss's symthesis is based on reputable sources." -- "Corliss, William R. (Compiler). Lightning, Auroras, Nocturnal Lights, and Related Luminous Phenomena" reviwed by Joseph M. Moran, Univ. of Wisconsin in Science Books and Films, Sep/Oct 1983

  • "Before opening the book, I set certain standards that a volume which treads into dangerous grounds grounds like this must meet. The author scrupulously met, or even exceeded those standards. Each phenomenon is exhaustively documented, with references to scientific journals [..] and extensive quotations" -- "Book Review: The moon and planets: a catalog of astronomical anomalies", The Sourcebook Project, 1985., Corliss, W. R., Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Vol. 81, no. 1 (1987), p. 24., 02/1987