Monday, September 24, 2007

Invasive Species Work Depends upon Systematics

The information about a new salamander hybrid got me thinking about the many hybrids, cultivars and varieties that make up the world of ornamental horticulture. The salamander presents a definition opportunity; is the off spring between a native and an exotic (alien) an invasive (or a citizen by right of birth)? Is it exotic simply because it was not here prior to the coming of television or Columbus? Is a new species or hybrid which results from the crossing of two natives automatically (given citizenship) a native?
There is the interesting possibility of a native crossing with an exotic, neither parent being invasive, and creating invasive off-spring.

There seems to be some unanimity among those with whom I posed the question: Is the salamander invasive by definition? “…if a species, not native to an eco-system, is breeding with a native species, especially an endangered one, and is causing harm, it fits the classical definition of an invasive species. If the hybrid of these two species makes it harder to differentiate the endangered individuals from others and/or more readily interbreeds with endangered populations, it is interfering with endangered species protection. It too would also fit the definition of an invasive species. And of course, if it causes economic or aesthetic harm to a natural area, it would be an invasive species?

All of this brings us to the problem and challenge of identification and systematics. I am made aware of a controversy surrounding the red wolf, for example. This is an endangered species. Much work is done to protect it and prevent the inter-breeding with coyotes. The problem seems to be that some believe it is already a cross between the grey wolf and coyotes. This need to be able to systematically identify and classify is a classic case of fundamental infrastructure science.

And supporting this and at the blurry edges of taxonomic collections are libraries such as the National Agricultural Library. When it comes to Early Defection and Rapid Response, one first has to know at what one is looking. Unfortunately, we seem to think that we shall find this information on the Internet, perhaps even Wikipedia, so we do not demand support for the taxonomic resources of the library or for systematics in general. Even though there is work underway to digitize, it will ultimately in my life time be hard to digitize a nematode cyst which can be brought to life after almost fifty years of careful conservation. And given the lack of resources, what will we do when our current technology can not “read” the copies of the books of taxonomy and plant identification which are in the National Agricultural Library in Beltsville, Maryland. And this assumes that our public leaders will even think about actually funding the library's needs. As I noted in the previous post, the library can no longer afford to subscribe to foreign scientific journals let alone add unique rare tomes on plant identification.

The book collections needed for identification and verification of plant species cover over two hundred and fifty years of publication, and, their preservation is also an issue. The date range of taxonomic literature needed for work in systematic & taxonomic botany, to verify and identify species, is from 1753 to present. 1753 is the publication date of Species Plantarum by Linnaeus, the start date for all scientific plant names.

NAL has a 1957 replica edition of the first edition of Species Plantarum, published in 1753 as well as an original of the 3rd, 1764, in addition to the rest of its “Linnaean collection”. And having walked through a very small part of the collection, the idea that we as a country would simply let this all fade away, is appalling. Our idea that some one else has the basic information somewhere stops, when one understands that NAL is the someone else, somewhere. Our information about agricultural ultimately is at NAL and NAL needs you to write your representatives and tell them to start demanding the proper funding of our National Library. And do not get me started on the small fact that when it rains, the windows leak. But, then our spending priorities seem to lie somewhere around the idea that the information age is based on some magical acquisition of knowledge without cost.

To truly do eradication and control of invasive species, we first need to know with what we are dealing; we need to classify, identify and verify, and, while we write about the invasive and their destructiveness, a quiet destruction of inadequate funding is slowly undermining our first line tool, our national library of Agriculture. If you do not know what it is, you cannot possibly know how to deal with it.

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