The Species Race
The world is losing plants faster than scientists can find them

Seaweed expert Arthur Mathieson and research technician Rebecca Toppin '01, second and third from left, are part of a team of biologists searching for invasive plants and animals in New Castle, N.H..

On a Sunday morning in August, 20 crack biologists from around the world descend on a concrete pier in New Castle, N.H. Wrapped in an early morning mist, the floating pier undulates gently with the motion of the water. Some of the scientists lie on their stomachs in a row, like so many curious children, staring into the waters and pulling out treasures: a rosy starfish the size of a Frisbee, a mussel encrusted with smaller shells and a delicate red seaweed. The researchers call out scientific names to a record keeper--"Homarus americanus," "Neosiphonia harveyi"--and seal specimens in plastic bags.

The scientists, including UNH seaweed expert Art Mathieson, are performing a "rapid assessment." Over the course of a week they are collecting and recording all the marine plant and animal species they can find in a series of one-hour stops along the New England coast. Every afternoon they return to a nearby lab and work into the evening, analyzing and preserving specimens. Twenty-five percent of the organisms identified three years ago in the first Northeast Rapid Assessment were species known to have come from afar, perhaps in a ship's ballast or an oyster's shell. Some of the imports may be innocuous; others are not. Take, for example, the Asian green seaweed known as dead man's fingers (Codium fragile ssp. tomentosoides). With its spongy, jointed leaves that resemble skeletal fingers, the plant has been spreading along the East Coast since the 1950s, smothering shellfish in their beds and crowding out native seaweeds.

Mathieson examines algae as the search continues at New York City's South Street Seaport.

On their quest to protect coastal New England from such scourges, the scientists appear to be armed with nothing more than Ziploc bags, kitchen strainers, eye droppers and a couple of butterfly nets. But their ultimate weapon is something much more powerful--the ability to take a six-foot-long seaweed or an orange blob of a sea squirt and give it a name.

The long list of Latin names that came out of the first rapid assessment has already helped states start tracking existing invasions, while officials from Long Island to Canada are collaborating on a plan to prevent further contamination of harbors, perhaps by disinfecting ballast water or discharging it in the open ocean.

The biologists participating in the rapid assessment are experts in taxonomy--the identification, classification and naming of organisms. An endeavor that's as old as Aristotle, taxonomy is now more important than ever as scientists strive to catalog and protect the rapidly diminishing diversity of life on Earth. For Judith Pederson of MIT's Sea Grant program, the hardest part of coordinating the rapid assessment has been finding botanists, like Mathieson, and zoologists trained in taxonomy. It seems that taxonomists are themselves an endangered species.

So many species, so little time

More than 100 years ago, Charles Darwin suggested that diverse ecosystems were superior to monocultures. Today the majority of biologists believe that biodiversity is critical to human survival. In a 1998 nationwide survey by the American Museum of Natural History, most biologists agreed we are in the midst of the largest and only human-induced mass extinction of plants and animals. It is estimated that extinctions are now occurring 100 to 1,000 times faster than normal.

The scientists considered the loss of biodiversity more serious than depletion of the ozone layer, global warming or pollution. The anticipated effects included destruction of natural systems that cleanse air and water; an increase in flooding, drought and infectious disease; elimination of potential new medications; and damage to agriculture, fisheries and the world's economies.

Out of an estimated 10 to 30 million species on Earth today, a mere 1.5 million have been described to date. Scientists clearly have their work cut out for them.

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