Not far from the elk, Miller opens an
inconspicuous security door into the
museum’s private world. The “nation’s
attic” has wide, well-lit corridors, and
when Miller reaches the giant room stor-
ing much of the pinned insect collection,
he pauses to let the sight sink in.
It’s not attic-y at all, but has the super-clean, bright feel of movie sets for secret,
high-tech installations. Ranks of some
1,800 cabinets, almost ceiling-high,
near-white and identical, march into
Earth’s vast diversity
Miller’s mini–New Year’s event may be
low on champagne, but it’s a world-class
demonstration of what
biodiversity is. He’s
using insects to con-
vey the variety of life by
giving a little tour of his
workplace, which hap-
pens to be the Smithso-
nian National Museum
of Natural History in
Miller starts with a few shallow
wooden drawers topped with glass. The
collection’s 135,000 drawers hold speci-
mens from just about every kind of place
an insect has ever been: tiny leaf min-
ers that excavate within
a single mangrove leaf
and harvester ants that
scurry over desert sands,
“It’s not because
one beetle or
one frog is going
extinct that we
All these insect habitats — the whole range
of ecosystems on the
planet — rank as a form of
biodiversity, Miller says.
He lifts trays holding
insects grown from larvae picked out of
fruits in Papua New Guinea. The assembled rows appear to contain duplicates
of a tiny brown-winged thingy, but his
trained eye recognizes dozens of species.
Another tray holds dozens of postage-stamp–sized brown moths pinned in
evenly spaced rows. The moths also look
the same at first glance, and Miller says
this drawer holds nothing but a single
species of spruce budworm, an infamous
pest of eastern forests in North America.
Staring closely, though, reveals shades of
brown, from mahogany and chocolate to
almost beige. And the wings are mottled
with yet tinier variations on the theme.
These individual differences count
as biodiversity too. Differences at the
ecosystem, species and genetic levels all
matter, Miller says.
It’s that the losses
Washington, D.C. As the
under secretary for science, he has a lab
that looks out on part of the research collection of insect specimens — there are
35 million of them.
Leading the way through the public
exhibit halls toward the stored collections, Miller strides past dramatic fossil
displays: half-billion-year-old remains
of weird, spiky creatures from Canada’s
Burgess Shale, an Irish elk with antlers
that loom like roof-mounted satellite
dishes and other vanished marvels.
Though things have been disappearing for a long time, humanity has revved
up extinction rates in the past few centuries to as much as a thousand times
the rates during much of Earth’s history,
according to the 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. That status report,
the work of some 1,360 scientists, names
habitat change, climate change, introduction of invasive species, overexploitation and pollution as the big causes of
this anthropogenic extinction. And the
report calls for urgent action.
sky-blue hairstreaks display the subtle
diversity within one butterfly species.
that greater diversity tends to boost an
ecosystem’s productivity and reinforce
Biologists around the world are thus
bootstrapping themselves out of despair
and seizing the occasion to explain biodiversity and why it matters.
except for Andorra, the Holy See and the
United States. Political opposition in 1993
prevented the full U.S. Senate from voting on whether to ratify the treaty, and the
issue has lain dormant since.
At a meeting in 2002, the participants
adopted the strategic plan that set the
date, 2010, for achieving the reduction in
losses. Now, like serial New Year’s resolvers pledging to lose 10 pounds, signatory
nations have to get on the scale.
The treaty secretariat’s January preview of the reckoning provided only broad
trends with arrows and pie charts to indicate whether various goals had been met.
(On a global scale, they had not.)
“It’s not looking good,” says Jean-Christophe Vié, deputy coordinator of
the species program at the International
Union for Conservation of Nature in
Gland, Switzerland. The nonprofit maintains the Red List, a registry that ranks
the status of various species, from thriving (“least concern”) to extinct.
Though comparing IUCN data over
time is difficult because the scope and criteria have changed, the Red List provides
a snapshot of where biodiversity is now.
At the end of 2009, an IUCN report
found plenty of creatures, mostly animals
and plants, still in peril. Of the 44,838
species that the IUCN had evaluated by
2008, 16,928 met at least the criteria for
Categorizing concern The International
Union for Conservation of Nature assigns each
assessed species a category of concern. Of the
groups below, amphibians and cycads have the
largest portions of endangered species, thanks
in part to habitat destruction and overcollection.
Red List status of species within various groups
Losses at all these levels had roused
enough concern by 1992 for an Earth
Summit in Brazil to produce the Convention on Biological Diversity treaty. Enough
nations had ratified the treaty by 1993 for
it to become a binding legal document. By
now, all nations have agreed to participate
Group (number of species)
�Data de;cient �Least concern �Near threatened
�Vulnerable �Endangered �Critically endangered
�Extinct in the wild �Extinct
SOURCE: IUCN 2009
March 13, 2010 | SCIENCE NEWS | 21