New Millennium Brings Search For New Life on Earth

FORT COLLINS, Colorado, December 29, 2000 (ENS) - What do Costa Rican caterpillars, West African arthropods and the Yucatan's flooded inland marine caves have in common? The answer is that scientists know next to nothing about any of them.

That is why they are being studied as part of International Biodiversity Observation Year (IBOY), which begins on Monday, the first day of the new millennium.

caterpillar

The false eyes of this caterpillar, Oxytenis modestia, cannot see or even distinguish between light and dark. They are patterns that scare off many vertebrate predators. One of IBOY's projects will study this and other caterpillars in Costa Rica. (Photo courtesy D.H. Janzen and W. Hallwachs, University of Pennsylvania)
Biological diversity, commonly known as biodiversity, refers to the vast variety of life on Earth. It is measured as the number of species of plants, animals and microbes but integral to biodiversity is the enormous diversity of genes that make up these species, or the variety of different ecosystems on the planet, such as deserts, rainforests and coral reefs.

Headquartered in the Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, IBOY will oversee a wide array of projects worldwide.

IBOY will not fund the projects, but will publicize them and their importance and provide opportunities for networking and collaboration, building bridges between science, education and the media.

These projects will seek to improve our knowledge about biodiversity, a pursuit regarded by IBOY's international team of researchers as the greatest scientific and educational challenge of the 21st century.

"Scientists have described about 1.75 million species but we estimate that there are over 12 million species still to be described," said Diana Wall, biologist at Colorado State University and IBOY chair.

"For 99 percent of species we simply don't have good information on their distribution, abundance, whether they are plentiful or endangered, or their role in providing goods and services that we get from ecosystems, such as renewal of soil fertility, decomposition of waste and purification of water."

It is this partial knowledge and limited awareness of biodiversity and its connections to our lives that undermines the ability of the public and policymakers to make decisions for sustainable development.

Wall predicts that by exploring biodiversity, scientists will unlock many benefits. Genes and chemicals will be discovered and used for drugs to improve crops, or to restore polluted land, she said.

"Perhaps even more importantly, learning where species are, their role in maintaining healthy ecosystems, and how we can conserve them will be vital for making more informed decisions about our land, rivers and oceans.

"How much biodiversity is conserved and the benefits we derive from it will largely depend on the decisions we make in the next few years," added Wall. "The IBOY in 2001 and 2002 is a window in time in which to pull together to integrate what is known about biodiversity, gather important new data and share this information with the public and policymakers."

IBOY is under pressure to succeed because much of the world's biodiversity is vanishing fast.

rainforest

Caterpillar life in Costa Rica's Rincon Rainforest along the north edge of the easternmost part of the Area de Conservacion Guanacaste will be studied. (Photo courtesy D.H. Janzen and W. Hallwachs, University of Pennsylvania)
"Extinction rates are now 100 to 1000 times the background rate expected without human influence and they are accelerating," said Stuart Pimm, biologist at Columbia University, New York, and a member of the IBOY advisory board.

"If current land use changes continue, the total loss of biodiversity will compare to those during the previous five mass extinction events in Earth's geological history," said Pimm.

According to the scientists participating in IBOY, a third or more of all species could be on a path to extinction within the next few decades.

Jeffrey McNeely, chief scientist at the World Conservation Union and a member of the IBOY advisory board, describes biodiversity loss as "the quintessential global issue."

That is because unsustainable consumption of resources typically occurs far from the habitats and species that are lost in producing the resources.

"Given the global roots of the problem, international cooperation is needed to solve it," says McNeely.

"IBOY is meeting a real need at a critical time in the relationship between people and the rest of nature, helping to promote international collaborative research programs to address some of the most important issues facing society today."

So what are those research programs? Here are some highlights:

pool

An area known as Cenote Car Wash in Tulum, Yucatan. Thirty-two troglobitic species have been identified from Yucatan caves, including 30 crustaceans and two fish. (Photo courtesy cavebiology.com)
Throughout IBOY, scientists will be sharing their findings on biodiversity. A special education webpage for children will be launched in January. It will host an internet chat session with IBOY's biodiversity experts.

As key biodiversity activities and findings occur throughout 2001 and 2002, information packs explaining why and how the latest science is being applied to understand and conserve biodiversity will be published and posted on-line.

A World Biodiversity Summit is tentatively scheduled for late 2002, to showcase the new information about biodiversity generated by IBOY.

The organizers of IBOY hope to convey scientists' optimism that by acting now we can learn to conserve biodiversity and reap its benefits sustainably.

"Every day scientists around the world are learning more about biodiversity," said Wall. "There is much being done but much more that can be done. We want the IBOY to raise awareness of this opportunity, and provide new ways for people to get involved and find the information on biodiversity that they need."

For more information about IBOY and a full list of the more than 40 projects taking place in 2001, visit: http://www.nrel.colostate.edu/IBOY/press/dec00_pr.html