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Biodiversity Expeditions Past and Present

Created by California Academy of Sciences.

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Video transcript

- [Tutor] Today we're gonna address how biodiversity is studied. The roots of modern ideas about documenting biodiversity grew out of a basic human need to satisfy curiosity, to collect objects, to learn about them and show them off to friends, the same drive that leads you to show off your photos of your latest vacation on social media or right off your new, hi tech handheld gadget. But of course, in the late 1500s and early 1600s, where I want to start, this technology didn't exist, but enthusiasts back then had it covered in what came to be known as a wunderkammer, literally a wonder room intended to reveal the world and its marvels in microcosm. Owners of wonder rooms filled them with curiosities from around the globe, by doing so, they also showed the owner's worldliness, their knowledge and even wealth underscored by the curiosity and need to know what's out there and what natural resources might be available. These wunderkammer contained cabinets of curiosity, actual furniture with cubbyholes and shelves for all kinds of things like skeletons and shells and tusks, horns, minerals, dried plants, anything that could be kept and preserved for others to, well, wonder at or be curious about. That human joy of discovery and keeping stuff to show off led to the wonder room becoming wonder rooms by the mid 1700s and scientists, though back then, they didn't call themselves that, most were natural philosophers, began to organize their collections and their knowledge about them drawing on another human trait, the need to name things and classify or categorize them, so you can communicate about them. So we have the birth of the science of taxonomy, the naming of things, right alongside the birth of natural history collections and museums and that brings us to Linnaeus, who between 1735 and 1768 published 12 editions of what is now regarded as the cornerstone of taxonomy, the Systema Naturae, organizing knowledge of living things into a hierarchical system and naming each species with what we now call binomial nomenclature, in which every species receives a two-word name, genus and species. Conservation efforts were also born at this time due in part to the effect that past, wanton collecting had had on natural populations, sometimes the thirst for one of everything got kind of out of hand, for example, collecting bird eggs became popular and prices went crazy, especially for unusual eggs, rare ones like those of the flightless great auk led to collecting that likely contributed to the bird's extinction, laws were introduced to protect them, but it was too late, the last great auks were collected from a small island off Iceland in 1844. Many of these curiosities and collections were gathered on global expeditions, these expeditions were part of the Colonial Imperative at the time, but there were other motivations too, including acquisition of knowledge. Expeditions were organized and sponsored by governments and rich individuals, one of the most famous expeditions led by Captain Fitzroy was the voyage of the British vessel, Her Majesty's Ship, Beagle. The voyage lasted five years from December 1831 to October 1836 and among the crew was a young man, who was ostensibly there to use his upbringing and his education to keep Captain Fitzroy company and well, frankly sane on this long voyage from home. This companion was also very interested in natural history and went on to use his discoveries in the Atlantic, South America, Tahiti, Australia, the Indian Ocean and especially the Galapagos Islands to describe the nature of evolution and natural selection, we're speaking of course of Charles Robert Darwin. As much has been said and written about Mr. Darwin already, I won't say too much, except to emphasize how his original aim to study the diversity of organisms, like the mocking birds and tortoises of the Galapagos, while on the voyage of the Beagle contributed to his major discoveries of the most important underpinnings of biological science, the process of evolution, by which new species originate. He led us from wonder rooms to "endless forms most beautiful and wonderful" as he states in the last paragraph of his book on The Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection. Other expeditions set out to explore the seas themselves, one of those was also British, the expedition of the HMS Challenger from 1872 to 1876 and led by Charles Wyville Thomson. At the time, the only marine life known was from the shallows, people weren't even sure how deep the oceans were, nor were they fully convinced that life could even exist in the deepest, darkest parts of the ocean. Thomson and his crew outfitted the former Naval vessel, Challenger for science, removing the guns and placing nets aboard for trawling and they added nearly 300 kilometers, that's over 180 miles of sounding lines to determine depths. They traveled 127,580 kilometers and that's 79,240 miles, they made about 500 soundings and collected more than 130 deep sea samplings by trawl and throughout they collected organisms, they preserved them in brine or in alcohol. The Challenger team discovered 4,700 new species, proving the ocean depths were full of life, much of it like nothing ever seen before and even today, scientists still use modernized versions of the collecting equipment invented for the Challenger expedition for ongoing deep sea fieldwork. Field expeditions remain the most effective way to find and document biodiversity, there's nothing like having the human power, the boots, the eyes, cameras, microscopes etc. on the ground, in the air or under the water. Today however, we're ever more mindful of our impact on natural ecosystems and their wild populations, how can we send out a message or a call to action to preserve species richness, if we're not ourselves careful about depleting natural populations? Collecting today is done only when necessary and by taking as few individuals as possible, while still fulfilling a scientific goal. We follow international rules and treaties, we obtain permits from national and local authorities and we try to stay abreast of the conservation status of the organisms and the ecosystems, that are the focus of our research. One of the greatest assets we use in the field today and a definite change from the early days of expeditions are the local people, we partner with them on our field sites, not only to learn from their enthusiasm and their local knowledge, but also to share our knowledge and our resources to help inspire preservation and conservation right there in the midst of the very biodiversity that continues to drive our wonder and curiosity.