Today marks the first anniversary of The Smaller Majority blog which, to my delight and surprise, has been steadily gaining readership. I am grateful to all who visited these pages over the last 12 months, especially those who kindly left the wonderful, insightful, occasionally snarky comments under many of the 130+ individual stories – keep’em coming! So far this blog has amounted to 75,000 words and 770 photos – that’s a decent size book; maybe I should have done that instead? Nah! And what better way to acknowledge the portent of this occasion than to talk about what I consider the most exciting aspect of my work as an entomologist – the discovery of new forms of life.
When I was about seven years old my father said something that, in retrospect, was probably the most important piece of information I have ever received, one that has influenced my entire life. I should mention that my father was an astronomer, and he did his best to try to entice me with his line of work, to no avail. (At some point he even built a telescope for me, but I only used it to watch birds and spy on my neighbors; I was a lost cause.) To my question about a possibility of finding life elsewhere in the Universe he replied that those chances were slim, but that our own planet still had many organisms that remained undiscovered and unnamed. That statement stopped me in my tracks. I instantly envisioned mysterious, dinosaur-like creatures hiding in the depths of African jungles. But he explained that the yet-unnamed animals were probably small, and that they might even be living in our own backyard. I am certain that at that very moment I decided to become an explorer who would spend his life questing for those elusive, undiscovered creatures. Of course, I did not realize then that most discoveries of new species take place among dusty drawers of museums, made by taxonomists whose lives are decidedly less than glamorous. But the stage for a career in entomology was set.
It took me fifteen years to run into a beautiful little gem of a katydid in a meadow in Turkey, an animal that until then had eluded entomologists. I named it Poecilimon marmaraensis, after the Marmara Sea on the shores of which this species occurs. The elation of knowing that I was the first person on Earth to find it was intoxicating. I am sure that all my fellow taxonomists have felt it at some point in their lives, and for many it is the ultimate reward. Finding new forms of life is to me one of the greatest adventures in biology, one that the current biodiversity crisis makes a pressing necessity. Extinctions and the appearance of new species are natural phenomena that once were fairly well balanced, with speciation always slightly outpacing extinction and making Earth’s biodiversity increasingly richer. But with the advent of man, this balance started to tip dramatically toward extinction, and we now lose species at a rate a thousand times higher than the natural, “background” one. Regardless of being named or not, each species gone extinct is another book of genetic code burned, another piece of the intricate puzzle of life on Earth irreversibly lost. And while destruction of natural habitats and the alarming pace of species loss give little hope for preserving all the components of Earth’s biota for future generations, we should make every effort to document all organisms that still inhabit our planet. Still, on some days, the nagging pessimist in me points out that maybe all that we taxonomists do is carve names on tombstones and write obituaries for species who may be gone by the time their formal, scientific names are published. He may be right, but I hope he isn’t.
In spite of all the evidence that the world at large simply does not care about most of our non-human brethren, I still believe that armed with the complete knowledge of all Life on Earth we will be able to make the best decisions as to where conservation efforts should be focused, and that we will manage to save a very high proportion of the world’s phyletic diversity and biocomplexity. The more diverse Life is, the more stable and capable of self-regulation are its assemblages. The more species alive, the more likely we are to discover new medicines, new crops, or new structures worth imitating. The more Life we have around, the more our own is worth living.