Monday, April 30, 2012

Plant collectors are endangered species

The days of the botanical adventurer, a relic of the western Age of Discovery, may be over:
The modern botanist tends to focus on one plant group and uses DNA sequences to decode evolutionary history and relationships. “We'll see fewer collections per individual because people are becoming so specialized. Just collecting a lot of specimens isn't something people have much respect for,” says Robbin Moran, who studies ferns at the New York Botanical Garden. The shifts in botany have had costs, he says. “The really big collectors have been tremendous generalists, and that's something that's being lost.”
This news feature in Nature discusses the work of some of the last botanical generalists - plant collectors who venture into the field to collect widely, rather than just particular groups that they specialize in. Why is their number dwindling? Among the reasons: fewer opportunities for botanical fieldwork, the increasing specialization of academic botany, and tighter controls on collection and export of plant specimens by countries which have the forests.

The lifestyle can be punishing. Among the explorers mentioned in the article are Alwyn Gentry of the Missouri Botanical Garden, who died in a plane crash in 1993, and Leonard Co of the Philippines, who was accidentally killed in a military operation while collecting in the field.

For science, the decline of general taxonomic knowledge is worrisome. Specialization is a natural consequence of the growth of knowledge, because as the amount of information grows, the proportion that one can master is correspondingly smaller. No one today would dare like Linnaeus to claim that he or she has constructed a complete System of Nature. But this doesn't mean that being able to name the plants and animals around one's home is irrelevant. As the article points out, one has to start early, when the mind is still impressionable and soaks up information readily. Humans are natural pattern-recognizers, and we have an innate urge to put names to things and classify them.

As a scientist I also value this sort of general knowledge. Science seeks to test hypotheses and answer questions, but these hypotheses and questions have to come from somewhere. In biology, the interesting questions tend to come from observing nature and pondering why something is the way it is: natural history in its most basic sense. Our world would be much poorer without it, and without the people who keep this knowledge alive.

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