Tag: biodiversity

The Sargassum Question

Sitting in her office, I could smell the sharp scent of hydrogen sulfide coming from the beach. She turned to me, paused for a second and proceeded to say with a seriousness in her tone that I hadn’t anticipated: The ecosystem that I have been studying all my life is now disappearing in a matter of weeks. Sargasso was once confined to the limits of the Sargasso Sea in the Atlantic Ocean. As an ecological system, the Sargasso Sea has no land boundaries and its biological containment relies entirely on a delicate balance of ocean currents. Unlike other ecosystems, it lends itself to an almost poetic reimagination of what an ecosystem is. On the West, the sea bounded by Gulf Stream; on the North, by the North Atlantic Current; on East by the Canary Current; and on the South by the North Equatorial Current. It was first described by Cristopher Columbus in 1492 during his journey to the Americas. Ever since, its origins and movements across the Atlantic Ocean have been a source of debate and wonder. It wasn’t until 1834 that the German botanist Meyen F. J. F. proposed the idea that sargassum was an ecosystem entirely independent of any land, a floating ecosystem. He was also the first person who suggested that sargassum reproduces itself in the middle of the ocean instead of coming from any given territory (Deacon, 1942). (read more...)

Lists, Indices and the Ownership of Biodiversity Conservation

Prior to the emergence of “biodiversity loss” as a ubiquitous way of talking about species extinctions in the 1990s, taxonomic biology was considered a dying field. The physical inspection of specimens to assign them to biological categories had long had a reputation as a hobby for “crusty old men and their dusty shelves”, as one botanist joked during my research in Ecuador. Biology’s cutting edge was genomics. But with an explosion of concern for a global extinction crisis, taxonomically-trained biologists and their cheap, low-tech methods occupied a central role in 1990s Latin American conservation efforts (e.g. Raven and Wilson 1991). In this post, I briefly consider how taxonomically-oriented field biology relates to other, typically quantitative ways of evaluating biodiversity. Taxonomy played an important role in establishing where conservation should focus its efforts. An increased emphasis on quantitatively linking biodiversity to other environmental problems has meant an increased role for other kinds of expertise (Gabrys 2016). It has also meant a return to the margins for taxonomic expertise. Examining the tools used to evaluate the biotic environment sheds light, both on the different kinds of questions that can be asked about it, and on the shifting place of different kinds of expertise in environmental governance. (read more...)