Mother Nature Needs You!

I cheated. Yesterday I posted the answer to a friend’s question on Facebook as if it was my own. It wasn’t. It was Dan’s.
The issue revolved around the identity of a most peculiar looking creature. It was postulated to be a living animal and all us former biologists, who are fairly thick on the ground around Atenas, Costa Rica, were stumped. One of the comments even suggested a visual connection between the unidentified specimen and ice cream, which makes marginally more sense, if one considers the profession of the original ‘poster’, who now creates the most amazing artisanal ice cream, but used to be a biologist in an earlier incarnation. At that point, slightly nauseated by the image of arthropodal sorbete, I decided to toss the critter straight in Dan’s lap. 
I hadn’t spoken with Dan in over a year and had no idea if he would continue to help out with my idiotic questions. Indeed, when I received his answer some fifteen minutes later, the first sentence read: ‘why don’t you send us something hard’. Followed by a mild critique on the picture quality (overexposed) and a full critter ID. He’s that good.
Well, sending Dan something ‘hard’, something unusual or interesting, would be just as difficult as breaking off a piece of moon-cheese. Dan is Dan Janzen, Professor Dr. Daniel H. Janzen, Chair of the Biology Department at the University of Pennsylvania, as well as the founder of ACG, the Área de Conservación Guanacaste and the President of GDFCF, the Guanacaste Dry Forest Conservation Fund. He is a scientist and visionary, who, with his ecologist wife Dr. Winnie Hallwachs, transformed the idea of conservation of biodiversity into applied and apply-able principles. His research & teachings of coevolutionary ecology and tropical biotope conservation have been instrumental in changing the effectiveness of said conservation globally.
Within their ecological and conservation interests, the Janzen-Hallwachses and their teams have been pursuing the implementation of a new technology called DNA Barcoding. Taxonomy, the science of identifying specimen and their relationship to each other through common ancestors is utilizing molecular biology to an ever larger degree. When I went to school during the dark ages, we used morphological features to identify plants and animals. Undergrad semester finals consisted of identifying either skulls or marinated fish or squishy invertebrates without using ‘keys’, instruction booklets, for guidance. Nowadays DNA sequencing is no longer an exception, but the standard, supplanting morphologically based comparisons. The most obvious advantage is the independence from morphology, the actual appearance of a specimen in regard to its age, developmental stage or general condition. DNA in any given butterfly is no different from its DNA during larval stages, whereas observing a caterpillar renders scant information as to its adult form.  A sequence of 648 base pairs of mitochondrial DNA can be used as a barcode for identification of many animal groups, especially fish, butterflies (Dan’s specialty) and birds, while a different sequence has been established to identify plants.  

In case you feel this is just one of those ivory tower endeavors, which often appear to have no practical application, think again. Smuggling endangered animals across international borders and dealing in endangered species’ merchandise is a multi-billion dollar global business. DNA Barcoding will make the identification of confiscated animals or their products fast and effective and give law enforcement a much-needed tool to combat the illegal trade of endangered species; or keep invasive plant species out of native environments, for example. There are and there are going to be many more useful applications for “Barcodes of Life Data Systems” and the INSDC, another collaborative effort to collect and manage DNA records. 

If you’re not all that keen on working your way through these links, please take a minute to listen to Dan’s short explanation of DNA barcoding in this video clip. Following is another link with great links (aren’t we linked today!!) to delve into this important subject matter, as well as a chance to see a few of Dan’s, definitely not over exposed, Lepidoptera photos.

All these endeavors of the scientific community and the toil of volunteers in the field to gather information to sustain essential biotopes and to record our global diversity in an effort to preserve a healthy environment for future generations costs an awful lot of money. So, I implore you to spread the word, share the information and donate, if you can. If the voices of the public become louder and louder, more organizations, like Google and the Gates Foundation, will recognize the benefits of sharing their resources. Let’s be loud & obnoxious, let’s stay linked and do this together!
Don’t forget to ‘like’ GDFCF on Facebook 🙂      

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