Thursday, June 29, 2006

Marsh Arabs, Island Biogeogrpahy and the importance of details

In a recent paper, Richardson and Hussain (Bioscience Vol.56(6), June 2006, pp. 477 - 489) discuss the current situation of the Marshes in Southern Iraq. Besides the humanitarian and environmental disaster, their report has some details of interest for the discussion on biogeography, conservation and restoration biology.

In the introduction, the authors state, that the entire 15,000 square kilometers of marshes have been destroyed under Saddam Hussein. This is not entirely true.

Saddam could only succeed in this project, because the Eurphrat had extremely low water caused by massive damns in Turkey, and water diversion by Syria. The capacity of the turkish reservoir is about 5.5 times the annual amound of Euphrates discharge. And thus the future of the Marshes depends on politics as well, not just snow.

Unlike the authors mention, the marshes have not been entirely destroyed, about 5% always left according to satellite data (see also the area in the Norteast of the satellite picture on page 478). So, the idea, that there was nothing left is not right from begin. But the data is all from satellites with a resolution of 28meter - what about all the small fragments? From a European perspective, exactly these sorts of minute habitats are important. The hedges or the many small isolated ponds for the survival of Amphibians. Only when they disappear, the genetic pools diminishes. In none of the reports on Iraq, this is an issue.

The repopulation of the 39% of the marshes is also interesting from the point of view of Island Biogeography, where at 90% of destruction roughly 50% of the species ought to disappear. But this is not the case here in Iraq, nor in Central Europe or the Atlantic Forest in Brazil. Obviously, the simple, mathematical representation of island species numbers does not real take into consideration heterogenous landscapes. If, as the other mention, the entire ecosystem has gone, then there should be nothing left.

The presence of the species they observe ought then rather be an indication, that for proper ecological studies we need more focus on minute fragments and most likely heavily degraded bits, or, like it is the case in the Semien mountains in Ethiopia, the small sanctuaries including leftovers of native vegetation around sacral sites. But this, acknowledgingly, is difficult to do in Iraq, where moving around seems only be possible at great risks.
Blagging in the blogosphere, or why bloging is necessary and good

Richard Ladle compiles often heard points about the blogosphere trying to sort out whether blogs are good or bad in a recent contribution to the Green Room at BBC-. He looks essentially at the green environmental sphere. He argues from the point of view of a very well established news group (the BBC), a point of view, which could easily be taken from the science or conservation itself.

He concludes, that if the established journalists don't act quick "we run the risk of creating a generation of eco-illiterate consumers and voters at a crucial time for the Earth's diminishing resources." But isn't that, what the media does with us anyway? There is very little coverage in the news about environment, which can be the highly selected, thought-to-be-digestible-for-consumer parts of a buffet of daily environmental news. And this buffet is already a choice of offerings hardly representing what's happening out there. Why else have all the large environmental NGOs, and in fact any larger organization, such a strong, professional media department? What is at the end more important, yet another high level meeting of politicians and high level conservationists talking about Africa, or a high caliber meeting of the biologists and conservationists studying Madagagascar at Duke university, talking specifics about Madagascar - a prerequisite of well-informed, and thus hopefully sustainable development. One is in the news, the other completely missed.

In a more general term, one could argue that it is not obvious that the more established a source is, the better it is. The most blatant case being our news reporting uncritically the lies of the Bush administration leading up to the war in Iraq and its early phase. This could also be argued for science itself: see the debate on climate change or GMOs, and the willingness of some scientists to work for particular interests, such as the extracting industy.

The solution I envision is rather that we must be lucky that we do have blogs. We are certainly in a nascent stage in its development, as opposed to a well established stage of our current sources of information. But then, individual meanings are not the final truth, and it is indeed a question, whether the politicians, the economy or the civil society ought to have the last word. With other words, an ever complex information highway most likely reflects much better a complex world.

What we need though, and that is certainly the challenge for the future, are tools to mine all the different bits of information and to visualize the results: What is the issue? What are the points? Where is it? What interests do the sources represent? This goes along the line, that there has been never before a greater responsibility on individuals to be more discriminating news consumer.

Monday, June 26, 2006

TEAM initiative at Conservation International

Conservation International's TEAM (Tropical Ecology, Assessment & Monitoring) Initiative has the potential to be an initiative to integrate observation data and systematics into a cutting edge conservation project. Furthermore, it is organized from one of the most successful international NGOs (Conservation International), and thus might have the necessary resources.

When I recently visited its Web site and looked at the list of the participants at their recent TEAM meeting in Brazil, read through their manual (exaclty those on ants, a domain in which I have some knowledge), and went through my disussions I had in Brazil last November at the Simposio de Mirmecologia, some fundamental questions came up. Obviously, there must be a lot of money available to fly so many people, including top journalists, to such a meeting.

At the same time, there seems to be by far not enough money to process, identify and store the specimen. The two liner attached to the section on specimen processing and identification for ants represents almost prefectly, what will be a serious flaw endangering the entire ant part of this project, and I to some extent the future of the inclusion of invertebrates into global surveys and monitoring programs.

"Specimen processing and identification
Samples should be identified by an expert taxonomist, or under the supervision of one. Details regarding this process will be specified in later versions of this document."

In all the current leaf litter projects around the world, the identification of specimens is the bottle neck. And this in projects, where there is over ten years of experience (Fisher in Madgascar, Delabie in Bahia, Brandao in Sao Paulo, Longino in Costa Rica). If at least all those few specialists would have been involved in TEAM (and appropriately paid, so they can spend prime time on the project) then this could lead to synergisms - but this seems not to happen.

Synergisms would also arise if more thought would be given to sharing knowledge on ants. Working on ants has one advantage, that the IT infrastructure is one of the most elaborate for any taxon world wide:
- The entire catalogue of all the 11906 species of ants is online available at the Hymenoptera Name Server;
- almost the entire body of descriptions of ants is online (ca 80,000 pages, linked to the catalogue );
- specimen databases using digir, and thus linked for example through GBIF exist (eg;
- species pages including cutting edge imagery exist (e.g. antweb, which allow to go back to the single specimen, literature, bibliography ( or even including other relevant information such as gen sequences, but always based on the original specimen ( This is far beyond lists of species per region or simple images of specimens.
- Effords are on its way to extract all the information from the original literature (dig lib), leading in the development of specific xml mark up schemas for literature.
- Character matrix manipulation tools exist, including a large data set of morphological characters and thousands of SEMs are available, which are soon being released.
- There are even tools to up- and download leaf litter sample matrices, linked to specimen, and specifically designed to complement the Ants: Measuring and Monitoring Biodiversity book used as baseline for the TEAM ant monitoring protocol.
- CEPLAC in Brazil has itself establisehd as a fine resources for identification of Neotropical (especially Amazon Basin and Mata Atlantic) ants, similarily to the Zoological Museum in Sao Paulo, similarily the Bibikely Biodiversity Research Institute in Madadgascar, or the ANeT organisation in Asia.

So, how can TEAM explain, that it is not tapping into these resources?

Collaboration with other ant teams world wide would also allow integration of ants into related initiatives, such as analysing CI's hotspots, countdown2010 (eg through the Sampled Red List Index).

But none of these resources seems being used, and thus, with all my optimism, I can not see, that this part of the TEAM project has a chance to florish, which would be a tragedy beyond CI-TEAM.
The Fourth Force: Control

The Independent online reports on June 25, 2006 an interesting story along the line, that Blair recognizes, that an independent force is needed to police (in our case rather control) pledges made to Africa at Gleneagles last year at the G8 meeting (Geldof is called in by Blair to police G8 poverty deal). The group will most likely be financed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The reason being, that too many pledeges are being made at prime time time, but later, only few of them are kept.

It includes also a statement, that Bill Clinton is too old for such an active role.

We should look into this for biodiversity conservation. We too had a large conference with all the top brass in Paris (Biodiversity, Science and Governance, January 24-28, 2005) convened by the French president Jacques Chirac), inlcluding comments by various minister, that the biodiversity issue will be brought up at Gleneagles. It didn't happen. Conservation International just run one of their global symposiums, this time held in Madagascar "Defying Nature's End: The Africa Context" on June 20-24. What is going to happen? How can we make sure, that we do not forget, and that we actually measure the success of such a conference? The US just designated nearly 140,000 sqaure miles, the largest marine reserve in the World (Science, June 23, 2006). Is the reserve big enough and do we know enough to ask such a question, not to speak how to monitor? The authors of this editoral suggest, that we need much more resources at a scale, not now available, but need increased international cooperative efforts.

An obvious important element is that scientists and conservationists change their culture and share data, write this into their mission statements and deliver. But, it seems, that unless we too start to look into a similar policing practice proposed for Africa, and headed by Bob Geldof, this might not happen. Why not get a biodiversity police headed by Harrison Ford?

Harnessing the Wisdom of the Crowds

Recently, Perry Peterson sent me a copy of a lecture by Peter Nicholson (President of the Canadian Council of Academies) title Harnessing the wisdom of the crowds: the new contours of intellectual authority. In this paper he is essentially arguing, “that what qualifies as intellectual authority in contemporary societies – who and what to believe – is changing fundamentally”. His thesis in a nutshell is this. “People today are much less prepared to defer to the experts. But at the same time, we are being swamped with data and information – a glut that cries out for analysis and summary. So there’s a dilemma. Who to turn to? Increasingly the answer is – Well, to ourselves of course, as individuals empowered by a world wide web that has rapidly evolved into a social medium. More specifically, it is a medium that today supports massively distributed collaboration on a global scale that – we can only hope – will help us make sense of it all.” His thoughts are highly influenced by James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of the Crowds, and Mike Kapor’s notion of massively distributed collaboration.

This is exactly the dilemma where biological systematics and conservation is stuck. Traditionally, we all rely on expert opinions, some of it well documented with detail down to one single specimen, and thus single observation or collecting events. Others are very cursorily, and only a name of a species is available, because all the rest is kept off the crowd by copyright, and when you get finally the original publication, you find only a very rudimentary summary information, such as “Central America”.

Similarly, the important RedLists of threatened animals and plants is for believers, since it is not possible to get to the base line data, which in many cases is hidden in somebody’s brain or drawer, to be opened only for good friends or money. There is no way, a RedList, or even the more advanced global amphibian assessments would hold out against such a scrutinzation as current climate model do (see for example the debate in the New York Times, June 23, 2006 Panel Supports a Controversial Report on Global Warming”).

In all the cases, it would be much better, if all the data would be open access, and anybody could have a look at the data. Google Earth just illustrates the limitation of the approach described above. Whereas we can now look at almost any place in the world at a 25 Meter pixel resolution (a single reflectance value on the ground at 25 x 25 meter square), we are made to believe that an animal or plant is living somewhere in Central America.

If I am a local naturalist, or working at San Diego Super Computer Center, I want to have the highest possible resolution of the data. As naturalist, because I want to rediscover this organism, and add more observation, especially, if this is an endangered and not well known species. As somebody with powerful computer support, I would like to model and understand the niche of this species. I do not want to go and ask first somebody to be so nice to give me the data.

Perry’s company Pyxis Innovation can play a very important role in the transition, if they (and GBIF who is paying to develop a data viewer) come up with a tool allowing to find and visualize specimen and ecological data. If they even provide, or integrate existing analytical tools, such as those offered at CRIA, then we’ll improve our science tremendously, leverage the support of the crowd, and at the same time, we could much better control, who actually is providing access to their data. And this is needed, if we do want to be able to create something like a global biodiversity monitoring systems.

Since there is no standard in peer review of systematics data, the simple access to all the raw data will probably the single most decisive factor to improve the knowledge of our species, since this allows at least to criticize any piece of scientific work.

If Rod Page get’s his way with ispecies, his mash-up approach, we actually would have also a way to bring together on one page all the relevant information on a particular species, such as its DNA, images, distribution records, literature, etc (see semant, and a ppt there on this issue).

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Access and Benefit Sharing - a Swiss view

The Swiss Academy of Sciences has just published a hard cover version and a Web version of a "Good practice for academic research" to ensure that Swiss academics act according to Access and Benefit Sharing as defined in the Convention on Biological Diversity and its follow-up.

Having done a lot of fieldwork in the tropics, participating in the follow-up of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), and working in some of the world largest natural history museum's environment, I find this is not an adequate response of the Swiss Academy of Sciences. In fact, I find it rather patronizing rather than in support of science. It is not, that I disagree with ABS (see comments about open access), but sc-nat and official Swiss policy in this field.

CBD has three main objectives, the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits (...). The North normally considers the first and second objectives as the relevant ones, but the South sees considers the last as the most important objective, to an extend that it can be looked at yet another tool to get money from the North to the South. It is the South' colonial history which makes them very sensitive about being exploited again, especially since in the late 80ties and early nineties the genetic resources in biodiversity rich areas have been used to argue for their protection. Bioprospecting has been, and still is an important word, but also one, that does hardly deliver (see Nature's Rex Dalton's story about bioprospecting and InBio in Costa Rica, Nature 441, 567-569) ). But the ghosts are out of the bottle.

Switzerland has a peculiar set up with its natural history collections. Due to the federal structure of Swiss museums, and the lack of Swiss Natural History Museum, there is no strong voice for systematics at national level, and indeed the Swiss Science Foundation has no track record for supporting the main contribution of natural history collections to biodiversity conservation and research, that is monographic work. Clearly, with its strong bias on 'hypothesis driven' research, SNF dismisses an entire field of research which is at the base of many of the ecological and conservation work. At least, the conservationists recognize that without such research, a substantial part of ecological and conservation studies are up in the air (see eg Maze, 2004)

Since the delegation at the COP (Conferences of the parties, or in more plain text, the so far eight follow up meetings of the governments of the Convention on Biological Diversity) are not scientists but led by diplomats and administrators, be it here in Switzerland or in Brazil, biodiversity is rather perceived as a commodity rather than what it is, a very complex, little known piece of our planet earth which needs protection. A recently raised issue by the governments of Brazil, India and others at the current Doha round of the World Trade Organization (WTO) is about the issue of Access and Benefit Sharing, that is the declaration of the origin or genetic material, which is heavily fought by the developed world.

Furthermore, the development of protocols for ABS does not live up to another goal of the CBD, monitoring (Art. 6 of CBD). This in fact demands surveys of relevant parts of biodiversity. If, like the Swiss Government, puts all its efforts into ABS, and doesn't contribute at the same time substantially to resolve this issue, than I see this Swiss brochure as very short sighted, if not contra productive to the idea of the CBD. It is to nobodies avail, if areas such as legal Amazonia is out of research, whereas at the same time huge logging concession are provided.

Switzerland ought to be much more pro-active. We have one of the six globally most important botanical gardens here in Switzerland (Geneva) with hundred thousands of types, desperately needed to chart and monitor global biodiversity (see Swiss Biodiversity Hotspot). By making these resources globally accessible, which is technically no problem any more, we could also gain a heavy weight in the discussion about collecting permits for scientific collections (and monitoring) and the separation of permits for bioprospecting. But siding with the industrialized countries in the WTO to avoid reference to the origin of genetic material, and a luke-warm position in the question abut terminator crops, we behave exactly the way the developing world is afraid of.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Do we need a Forth Force?

Sometimes in the early 70ties, NGO's and grass-root movements have become a power, the Third Force, with impact on governmental and industrial actions, and thus could bring change. Today, NGOs are often a force listened to (e.g. Human Rights Watch or Amazonia), or at least on paper, have to be listened to. In many cases, large NGOs have more brainpower than many of the parties (governments) in international meetings on the environment such as the follow up meetings of the Convention of Biological Diversity, a topic I am interested in.

It seems to me though, that the step from a small grass-roots movement to a large international NGO, such as highly successful Conservation International, comes at a cost: More and more money needed to maintain their business is from large philanthropic foundations with their own agenda. Thus the independence of the NGOs operation is at least partially lost, even if its just because an emerging area is not yet on any of the funding agencies palate. Increasing the size needs more specialists. People doing properly fieldwork are often hard to find. Collecting data in the field was never high on the agenda because one cand get away with reliance on "experts". Finally budgets are very tight for this sort of work. At the same time, getting larger means more administrative personal, including a expensive counselors to avoid the cliffs of expensive legal battles, thus overheads have to be used respectively.

An article in yesterdays Independent on the number of giant pandas shows the difficulties to even get the figures right on the abundance of one of the most emblematic species in the world, the Giant Panda. How can a number of living organisms just double - a similar fluctuation being known in measuring the Tiger populations in India? In the case of the Giant Panda, the reason for this correction are inadequate methodologies to study the animals. Only the reliance on DNA collected in feces helped to figure out, that there are as many as double the number of the hitherto assumed specimens in the wild.

If this happens to one of the best studied organism, how can other figures be trusted? How can we document, how many species are disappearing, or that we actually have a successful program to decrease the rate of loss of species, as we ought to do according the Target2010?

What about the quality of the few numbers of global surveys, such as the global amphibian assessment, delivering a widely cited dismal outlook on the state of amphibians and our environment? To run a proper monitoring program, ‘hard’ figures ought to be out there and accessible to anyone, so that the analysis could be done independently, and that changes could be detected by comparing existing with a more recently assembled data set. But this is not the case, because the entire set up for the amphibian assessment relies on expert opinions, drawing circles to define the range of a particular species, discarding the original observations. The one single most significant advance in the amphibian assessment is, that it is an effort including up to 600 scientists world wide.

Supposedly, the original data is on the Global Amphibian Web site, but it is not there. This actually demonstrates a couple of other crucial impediments in conservation. It is one thing, to mention that data is accessible - something which ought to be done because donors such as the US National Science Foundation demand it, and then actually do it. Being one the interim steering committee of the Conservation Commons initiative, I (and some others) ponder for a while now how to deal with this problem. There are all these institutions signing up on the principles of the Conservation Commons, but then who actually provides access? May be it is the wrong approach that institutions as such can sign up, which gives weight to the initiative and in return allows them to use the CC label. May be, one should only be allowed to sign up products, like in the Creative Commons. This way, the Global Amphibian Assessment would have to make their data accessible and we could get access to the data of Conservation International and other signatories.

If we are really concerned about our environment, then we ought to do our best to fight against its decline. Certainly sharing data is one element which is, in my view, the most powerful new asset given to us by the digital revolution. See for example google Earth’ impact on innovation, or for a bit a more professional use, what the Global Land Cover Facility has to offer.

Access to data, and ingenious users, would allow shifting power to a new, Forth Force of highly independent groups targeting environmental issues right on the spot with the most advanced tools, and at the same time allows assembling and addressing local issues within a global perspective, to mitigate the effects of the governments’ and increaslingly global industries’ action on the environment in places where they are listening, and in ways the now classical NGO can't do anymore.

Monday, June 19, 2006

The EO Wilson Biodiversity Foundation

It is certainly good news, that on June 23, the EO Wilson Biodiversity Foundation is being launched in New York in a rather glamorous setting, the Tavern on the Green in New York’s Central Park. It’s especially good news, that in a time of great biodiversity loss, EO Wilson, a retired Harvard Professor rated by Time Magazine as one of the most influential US citizens, comes up with a foundation, with a board full of Nobel Laureates, entrepreneurs and other successful people.

It is the logic consequence of EO Wilson’s highly successful scientific and public career, and indeed modus operandi, to lend his name to a foundation created by highly successful businessmen in biotech. Wilson was an early advocate that we need to protect biodiversity, because, among others, of all its yet unknown genes and thus value for humankind. This was in 1987, and since then, we still struggle to produce even a simple list of organisms, not to speak of proper monitoring programs to assess the change of the world’s species. Despite a brief high-noon around 1992, the time of the Earth Summit in Rio, conservation of biodiversity has been dropped of the screen of politics and industry.

The Rio Earth Summit in 1992 led to the Convention on Biological Diversity ( – not signed by the US, but 150 governments worldwide) – has been hailed as a step towards the conservation of biodiversity, but not by all. The developing world, where most of the biodiversity is, was much more interested in Access and Benefit sharing of all the many valuable genes out in their backyards, who could lead to substantial revenue, as EO Wilson Foundation’s CEO Jay M Short point out. That this is still a main issue has recently been demonstrated under the lead of Brazil and India who asked for an amendment to the WTO’s intellectual property agreement to disclose the origin of inventions using biological resources or traditional knowledge, against the will of many of the industrialized nations (see), and which could be one reason of the current Doha round of negotiations failure.

Another reason of the dismal state of biodiversity knowledge and conservation is the failure to build adequate infrastructures to measure, monitor, access and communicate its state. There is on the one hand hardly any connection between the bio-systematics community (those able to discover and chart to worlds living creatures) and the conservation community. On the other hand, we systematists still struggle to change our culture from very introverted scientists to extroverted, from single project oriented, focusing on few taxa to an emphasis of being a member of the megascience project “Global Biodiversity”, as Sandy Knapp puts it. There are such structures being built (eg. Global Biodiversity Information Facility; the Biodiversity Heritage Library, and Zoobank and Ubio as name server. Conservation Commons ( and Science Commons both work towards a licencing system allowing building up a global semantic web, that is an open access based information network needed to link all the bits of information. These activities are not mentioned anywhere in the documents of the EO Wilson foundations currently available online.

Wilson himself has a dubious record in terms of practical achievements. He is clearly not a builder of organizations. There is no Wilson legacy in terms of a prolific institution, such Peter Raven's Missouri Botanical Garden and initiatives. The All Species foundation, under guidance of Wilson, disappeared, to a large degree because it's utterly unfocused strategy. His highly praised effort of building up an Encyclopedia of Live is undermined by siding with Harvard University Press to retain the copyright on his systematic work (see…"The last of its kind"). Searching new ways of funding and doing things is certainly laudable, but to “include academic experts on population genetics and evolutionary theory as well as business-school trained entrepreneurs”, questions whether the work can be done, since none of them has credentials nor experience in the complexity of assessing biodiversity and conservation, nor working with the respective scientific community.

It is great, that such a high-powered new initiative is on its way. Let’s be optimistic once more, and watch how they operate, and whether this will developed into a serious effort enhancing the megascience project “Global Biodiversity” and its conservation, or just another misinformed initiative to whitewash the hands of people generating their money and fame from biodiversity. Lets use the Internet watch this new foundation's actions unfold.