The state of biodiversity research in Canada – November 17, 2010

The Council of Canadian Academies released an expert panel report on Thursday, November 18th 2010 at 7am EST.  The report is an assessment of biodiversity science and taxonomy in Canada.

To help media cover this event, the SMCC organized an embargoed web conference with four authors of the report, including the panel chair, Tom Lovejoy, of the Heinz Centre Chair for Biodiversity.

Panelists are:

Dr. Thomas Lovejoy, Chair of the CCA Expert Panel, Biodiversity Chair at the Heinz Centre for Science, Economics and the Environment, Washington DC.

Dr. Luc Brouillet, Professor and Curator of the Marie-Victorin Herbarium, University of Montreal

Dr. David Green, Professor of Biology at McGill University, Director of the Redpath Museum;

Dr. Sarah Otto, Professor and Director of the Biodiversity Research Centre, University of British Columbia.

Topics we covered include

-The lack of taxonomic expertise in Canada

-The deteriorating shape of our museum collections

-The need to invest resources in digitizing information on Canadian biodiversity and making it available on the Web.

Audio recording: Full biodiversity webinar


Part 1: Introduction

Part 2: Dr. Thomas Lovejoy

Part 3: Dr. Sarah Otto

Part 4: Dr. David Green

Part 5: Dr. Luc Brouillet

Part 6: Questions

Feel free to use these quotes in your stories. If you would like to talk to an expert, please call us at 613-878-8279 or 438-288-3988.

Here are some quotations from the four speakers at this webinar. You can also listen to the whole webinar above.

Dr. Thomas Lovejoy, Chair of the CCA Expert Panel and Biodiversity Chair at the Heinz Centre for Science, Economics and the Environment, Washington, USA

 “ Our report examined three key areas: Canada’s taxonomic expertise; the state of biodiversity collections; and access to data about Canadian biodiversity.  After assessing the evidence in each of these areas we concluded that Canada is not yet equipped to fully understand the challenges of its biodiversity resources.”

“Even in Canada, one third of all species are still unknown to science. I also had the honor to chair this past year the Review of the 3rd Global Biodiversity Outlook and basically, its pretty grim prospect, unless things change in terms of human behavior.

“Basically as a friend of mine said recently – the last time we looked, we were a biological species. That means we are very dependent on the web of life, both for things we harvest immediately, whether it be a fish species we eat as seafood, or whether it is in terms of some ecosystem service, like the provision of clean water and reliable water supply, pollination to important crops and the like.

We found some trends that clearly need to be addressed. One is the Canadian contribution to describing new species has dropped from being sixth in the world to 14th in the last decade. We’ve visited a number of museums and collections and there’s no question they are a national treasure – sometimes housed in the most modern of conditions, other times not – but mostly, the information those collections represent is trapped in the museum cabinets and not easily available on the internet. So that’s one of the big challenges in an area in which Canada is falling behind. The taxonomic enterprise in Canada is slipping at just the moment when it needs to surge forward.”

Dr. Sarah Otto, Professor and Director of the Biodiversity Research Centre, University of British Columbia

(Taxonomist as Sleuth)

“Taxonomy is the science that discovers, distinguishes and classifies and documents  living things. As such, taxonomy is the foundation of biodiversity research and essential to understanding the world around us. I personally like to think of taxonomists as the detectives of the biological world.  Just as detectives use fingerprints of photographs or DNA analysis to identify their culprits, taxonomists use distinguishing features and DNA to identify the species – and like detectives, taxonomists have to do a lot of sleuthing in order to find their culprit.

(The Lesson of the Sea Squirt)

“One example to bring this home is the invasive marine sea squirt – a rapidly growing tunicate that completely over-grows oyster beds, aquaculture equipment, docks and native species. This invasive species is a master of disguise and was misidentified as 8 different species over the years. It took an expert taxonomist, Gretchen Lambert of Friday Harbor Lab, to identify it correctly… Now that we know which species it is: Dr. Lambert was able to identify where it came from –and that’s from Japan and the waters around Japan–. She was also able to identify the likely culprit that transported the sea squirt around the world –and that was on ships either through the ballast or in ships holds–. And that will allow us to improve policies about reducing the risk of invasive species with ship traffic.”

(Taxonomists are essential in the fight against invasive species)

“If we don’t have taxonomists in place, then we either fail to identify invasive species or identify them too late to properly tackle them. And this happened to us in Canada with the brown spruce longhorn beetle.

Taxonomists are critical for identifying and protecting species at risk. We can only protect that which we know about and we only know a small fraction of the species on earth. It has been estimated there are 5-10 million species on earth and we only have records of about 1.6 million of these species. Their extinction rate is dramatically higher than historical records. Current estimates state that species are going extinct 1000 times faster than historically.”

Dr. David Green, Director of the Redpath Museum at McGill University

Here, at the Redpath Museum, we have a specimen of an Eastern cougar. It was collected in 1859 in southern Quebec and it’s the last, real, true, verified Eastern cougar that was ever seen in Canada! How could I get another one? But it’s a value because we can get DNA from it, we can study it, we can understand it and know what the real animal looked like.

So specimens contained within collections from across the country are a legacy of our lands and waters as they have been and are today. They are the product of past research work, that is true, but they are also the basis for future work.

Dr. Luc Brouillet, Curator of the Marie-Victorin Herbarium, University of Montreal

Access to biodiversity data in a timely manner is extremely restricted within Canada, compromising our ability to address important issues.  Canada’s collection contain more than 50 million specimens but less than 10% of this collection data is available online.  This dearth of computerized collection data comes from a lack of consistent investment. There is currently no incentive for investing in the digitization of our collections.

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