Monday, 20 September 2010

A good thing

More than 600,000 plant species have been deleted from the dictionary of life after the most comprehensive assessment carried out by scientists.

For centuries, botanists from different parts of the world have been collecting and naming "new" plants without realising that many were in fact the same. The humble tomato boasts 790 different names, for example, while there are 600 different monikers for the oak tree and its varieties.

The result was a list of more than 1 million flowering plant species. Although experts have long known that it included many duplicates, no one was sure how many. Later this year, the study team, led by UK and US scientists, will announce that the real number of flowering plant species around the world is closer to 400,000.

The project - which has taken nearly three years - was the number one request made by the 193 government members of the Convention on Biological Diversity at their meeting in 2002. There were concerns that without this work, it would be impossible to work out how many plants were under threat and how successful conservationists were in saving them.

The information will also be vital for any organisation or researcher looking at "economically important" plants, such as those for food and nutrition or medicine, said Alan Paton, assistant keeper of the herbarium at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, west London, one of the four leading partners in the project.

"On average, one plant might have between two and three names, which doesn't sound a great deal, but if you're trying to find information on a plant, you might not find all [of it] because you're only looking at one name," Paton said. "That's even more critical for economically useful plants: because they are more used, they tend to have more names."

In one example, researchers calculated that for the six most-used species of Plectranthus, a relative of the basil plant, a researcher would miss 80% of information available if they looked under only the most commonly used name. On another database, they found only 150 of 500 nutritionally important plant species using the names cited in current literature.

"By going for one name, we missed the majority of information mankind knows about that plant, which isn't too clever," said Paton. "What's really a breakthrough is we have a place which allows people to search through all the names used."

Kew Gardens joined up nearly three years ago with Missouri Botanical Garden in the US, and experts on two of the biggest and most valuable plant families: legumes, or peas and beans, and Compositae, which include asters, daisies and sunflowers.

They have since attempted to search existing plant lists and work out an "accepted" name for each species, and then list all known variations. One of the databases was originally set up using £250 left in the will of Charles Darwin. The full results will not be published until the end of the year, but so far the researchers have found 301,000 accepted species, 480,000 alternative names, and have 240,000 left to assess.

Although work will continue to assess smaller plant groups in more detail and check for missed duplications, Paton said they now believe that the true number of plant species will turn out to be "400,000 or just over".

"You can't give an absolute number of names, but we have narrowed the possibility," he said. Previous estimates, without the help of a full assessment, put the figure at between 250,000-400,000.

Most of the work of the study group was sifting and sorting different names allocated to one species, often because scientists were simply not aware of the work of rivals and colleagues who had previously "described" the plant in a scientific journal, or because of confusion caused by superficial differences such as different sized leaves in different climates. In some cases, plants thought to be the same have also been judged to be different species because of differences which have been revealed by later scientific discoveries, such as DNA.

As well as the likely 400,000-odd flowering plants, there are thought to be 15,000 species of ferns and their allies, 1,000 gymnosperms such as poplars and conifers, and 23,000 mosses and allies making up the plant kingdom. For comparison there are more than 1 million species of insects listed by science, 28,000 living species of fish, 10,000 birds and 5,400 mammals.

A meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity in October in Japan is likely to declare that targets to halt biodiversity loss by this year failed and set tougher new aims to halt the problem.


socrates said...

You're going to think I'm on mushrooms, but did you ever wonder about humans and animals having so much in commong?

Let me get right to the goofiness. I believe in reincarnation. I believe within all living matter is spirit. We as humans are the most evolved. That's why we are able to speak complex languages. Others talk up dolphins and other amazing animals, but for all the evil some humans take part in, we are the most evolved and by a long shot.

But if you look at the other creatures, they have two eyes, four limbs same as us. They also express emotion.

So I'm asking how can only humans have souls?

Now of course there is the atheist or scientific outlooks which would argue this kind of talk is superfluous. Good for them. If they want to believe we are born and die and that's that, I'm not going to debate it. It can't be proven one way or another what happens to us after we leave the shell we were born into.

It seems to me, and the vast majority tend to agree, that there is more to who we are than our body and temporary stay. It's actually the most mind-boggling question after what is the meaning of life. What happens when we die? And of course there's no way to know for sure. That's life in a nutshell. We can only be in the moment.

socrates said...

I have no question mark. I copy and paste them. This time I copied a "g" by accident before the question mark. This disclosure is for anyone out there wondering how a typo for the word common can end up as commong. p:>

the_last_name_left said...

I don't believe in reincarnation, or any such sort of thing. I'm pretty hardcore materialist tbh - if there's one thing you're safe to assume about me it's that, tbh. ;)

On language, it seems humans lose the ability to breathe and swallow simultaneously so that they can acquire speech. That suggests language is of such great adaptive benefit that it's worth the risk of choking. So....I can see perfectly material reasons can blindly drive apparently unexplainable and incredible things. Why the universe is as it is, and the conditions are such that the material world can blindly drive matter to animation and self-awareness, language and even love......who knows?

"most evolved" seems anthropocentric - even species-ist. Surely it's an indication of what you consider to be "most evolved" rather than about objective measures? By what measure are humans most evolved?

Animals and emotion is interesting topic. Animal consciousness too. But we're without a real theory of mind, so it's very difficult to say much with confidence. I'm resistant to using terms for human emotions directly for animals and supposed equivalence. At the same time, we have no reason to be much more sure about humans sharing and understanding of emotions yet we normally just accept it as an obvious given.

I'm very much of the view animals need enormous respect - as if they were all god's creatures, I guess. I think they undoubtedly have some form of emotional world, and consciousness too - but I don't think we can use human equivalences. Of course, we have no other language or framework with which to describe it or think about it.... invariably we get drawn into making direct inferences. I'm happy to accept it in everyday life as a matter of course, but not seriously. Animals certainly are not automata.....i find that old mechanistic Victorian view abominable.

I don't find it surprising people tend to feel there's more to life than "you are born and then you live and then you die". It doesn't mean there is. Everything says to me it's self-delusion by a little mystical monkey. That's one reason I'm suspicious of it - exactly because it is so pervasive and compelling a thought. don't believe any of it, but still, I'm not free of mysticism I bet - how can anyone be when raised in 19thC Northern Europe, or anywhere else?

No, I just don't believe any of it. I am stardust - and eternal in that sense only. I am a corner of the universe that's self-aware for an instant. Dust to dust. Oh well. :D

socrates said...

So you're basically an atheist? I consider myself an agnostic in public, yet a believer within myself.

I think there's no proof one way or the other. I see atheism as being as faith-based as theology. I can live with not knowing. It's not like anyone ever asked to be born. It's definitely mind boggling these fundamental issues of consciousness and death. I do think it's healthy to discuss them.

That theory on how humans developed clear speech is fascinating. Could you explain more? Did you read that somewhere, or is this an idea of your own?

Eastern philosophy and meditation are also related to breathing. What may ultimately be keeping us alive is the invention of the interjection, er, uhm, the good old let me catch my breath.

Yeah, I am being human-centric saying we are the most evolved creature. However, if we pinpoint the argument I was clumsily trying to make, it's in relation to say for example beavers having the engineering abilities to create their dams. No other species comes close to what humans have created.

Though the corollary is that if we are so advanced, why have we brought the world so much violence, inequality, and pollution?

Perhaps the biggest difference between ourselves and animals is memory. Think of dogs. They remember us. They know who we are. They have their own schticks, say marking their territories for taking leaks. But there's a limit to their memory. They always seem to be in the moment. I find it utterly fascinating how much they love us. Unless abused by humans, even the most dangerous of their species are unlikely to hurt anyone. Now lions and tigers are different in that respect. You can train them as little cubs and allow them around people with no fears, but as soon as they grow up, the dangers reemerge.

You had a Freudian slip and admitted you believe in reincarnation. You wrote, "... I'm not free of mysticism I bet - how can anyone be when raised in 19thC Northern Europe, or anywhere else?"

The 19th Century? Hmmmm.

socrates said...

Last Dude Left, you're going to love this. Remember how DesertPeace put in fancy software to make you think you were posting but really weren't? Brad's put in software to censor anyone writing Brett Kimberlin or Velvet Revolution. But I found a way around it. I've taken screenshots. Talk about a tell. He'll probably get rid of the software to make me look like a liar. Trollbusting ain't as easy as it looks. But I think we have them on the ropes.

socrates said...

Ugh, I'm too lazy to go back and try it with a proxy to see whather it's just for me. But if he had my ip, why wouldn't he censor me altogether? It's closing in on 4 a.m.. Gotta get shut-eye.

socrates said...

damn typos. Whether not whather. If I was from Wales, I'd be saying crikey. By the way, Agent 99 said crikey once. Maybe you are in cahoots with them? Just kidding.