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Discovery

Those in quest of new species tend to be a bit maniacal. Myself included. I was once part of a group of birders who kept discovering birds in wrong places and had a hard time convincing others that we were not on drugs. We even united for a few months into the Society of Maniacal Naturalists. And, as many of the stories that follow amply illustrate, the quest to perceive species (the Latin root of "species" means "to observe, sight, espy, watch, look") is an occupation of perseverance, irreverence, and exceptional abilities at scouting, dragnetting, beating the bushes, leaving no stone unturned, memorizing untold songs and wing whirrs, and, more recently, probing with DNA wands, dredging the deepest seas, videotaping jaguars and giant squids, and fogging the rainforest with organic insecticides in order to receive a blessing of beetles. Some naturalists like E.O. Wilson would claim that this personality is largely a gift of birth, though many, deprived of the opportunity as youths, later discover its joys. I always wonder how I went from the streets of Brooklyn to the temperate fjord forests of Chile in quest of a rumored shrew.

One lovely aspect of discovery is that the required human talents defy rankings, formal education, and professions. This next section will tell a few discoverer tales: of tour guide Ted Parker, a man who held 4,000 bird songs in his head; of novelist Vladimir Nabokov's contribution to butterfly naturalist history; of parataxonomists changing from their lives as farmers to become sharp-eyed field collectors; of painter Audubon's tricks on the true maniac, Rafinesque. Add to these every sort of "amateur" and "professional" naturalist, as well as the academic specialist (Miriam Rothschild and her love of fleas; E.O. Wilson on ants) and you cook up quite a wonderful dialog, tinged with competition, possessiveness, ego and cross-checking, but fundamentally honoring the pursuit of mysteries in life.

Let's not romanticize. The quest for species began in earnest with conquest. To be powerful was to have more knowledge than anyone else of the living world. Specimens were sent dead and alive back to the "mother" country. Many naturalists earned their livelihoods finding profitable "exotics"?plants and pets that Europeans had never seen. Today, most of the 2.5 billion specimens in collections worldwide are in North America and Europe. When we consider an all species inventory, this history comes back to haunt us. Nations that will be most open to surveys will be nations that can forgive the conquerors. Naturalists and other scientists who will be most successful will be those who admit the stark past and help rectify the wrongs. They can, for instance, find funding to digitize all the specimens of former colonial nations so that the nations-of-origin have access to this knowledge. They can assure that duplicates are placed in national herbaria or museums, and help find funding for nations to build their own natural history infrastructures. If done right, the twenty-first century collector will also be a diplomat and a source of healing. This doesn't stop the fun. It just adds humanity to the mania.

And the twenty-first century will have new and more focused naturalists. There have been too few explorers for the kingdoms and orders that remain the most undescribed. We need a fervor for nematodes and mites; micro-algae and fungi (especially the fungi associated with insects); terrestrial arthropods; bacteria that have not been and can't be cultured. If there is but one species of parasitic nematode, protozoan, bacterium, or virus for each multicelled creature on Earth, then the species list will skyrocket beyond the current estimate of 30 million. If the guts of creatures from bioluminescent squid to termites, from cows to us, truly each have a necessary and intimate symbiont?bacteria to help us digest, fungi to help plants ingest minerals, protoctists to transform wood into termite food?then the species count could zoom toward 100 million. So we start with Lynn Margulis and the need to inventory the microcosmos.

As we finished this issue, I had lunch with Sarah Weigel, who was helping the All Species Foundation. Her job was characterizing DNA in a lab, but she yearned to study treehoppers outdoors. I thought: If this issue can find one lover of treehoppers a place in the world to pursue that passion, it will have done enough.