Hope on eight legs
By Heather Hansen, Red Lodge Clearing House
Sometimes when I grow weary of news of natural disasters, wars and political squabbling, I flirt with the idea of creating a Great News Network (GNN) which only reports positive events. Effervescent anchorpeople with gleaming smiles would talk of ceasefires, people and pets rescued from peril, Rover landings, that sort of thing.
A story I saw recently in Scientific American would make the cut for GNN. Accompanied by a huge, hair-raising image of a yellow-orange, clawed spider, the article gleefully announces the discovery of the creepy-crawly, previously unknown to science, in a cave in southern Oregon.
An amateur biologist, who also happens to be a Deschutes County deputy sheriff, was poking around the dark recesses near Grants Pass when he found the Trogloraptor, or “cave robber.” The remarkable find marks a new family, genus and species in the spider family tree—a rarity in science. Since then, similar spiders have been documented in the dim, damp old-growth forest of the Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. Kudos to those plucky folks who went in search of the sizable, battle-ready arachnid clinging in darkness to its tacky web.
I was curious about how often such a discovery is made, so I turned to the International Institute for Species Exploration at Arizona State University, which has published a “Top Ten New Species” list for the past five years (this year’s winners, from among hundreds of nominees globally, include a night-blooming orchid, a blue tarantula, a sneezing monkey and—this is seriously what it’s called—the SpongeBob SquarePants mushroom).
ASU’s list pays tribute to the 18th-century Swedish botanist, Carl Linnaeus, who established the modern system of naming and classifying plants and animals known as taxonomy. Linnaeus, a great naturalist, was nevertheless criticized for his thoughtful observations which, for some readers of the time, were too, let’s say, suggestive. In 1729, he wrote, “The flowers' leaves. . . serve as bridal beds which the Creator has so gloriously arranged, adorned with such noble bed curtains, and perfumed with so many soft scents that the bridegroom with his bride might there celebrate their nuptials with so much the greater solemnity…” But Linnaeus exacted comic retaliation against his naysayers; for botanist Johann Siegesbeck who called his rival’s writing “loathsome harlotry”, Linnaeus named the oozing weed, Siegesbeckia.
The species Top 10 shows how little we know about the natural world and, paradoxically, how quickly human activity is annihilating biodiversity. According to the best estimates, the natural world contains roughly 8.7 million species, only 14 percent of which have been identified to date. In 2009, 19,232 new living species were officially described. At the current rate of discovery and identification, it would take over 1,000 years to catalog all of the outstanding plants and animals. Whether or not those species will be endangered, or even extinct, before we acknowledge them is a matter of time, and of conservation.
We have many opportunities right now to make good environmental news in the West. We can support the U.S. Fish & Wildlife findings and critical habitat designations currently open for comment on the Southwestern willow flycatcher and two rare butterfly species.
We can encourage Utah, which has begun vetting a plan to protect greater sage grouse, to be courageous and thorough in its assessment. We can critically evaluate proposals like the one being floated by the Bureau of Land Management to lease nearly 3,000 acres worth of parcels for shale development in the eco-sensitive South Park region of south-central Colorado, known for its diverse wildlife and world-class fisheries. Comments on that plan will be accepted through September 17.
At a time in human history during which it seems everything has been seen, done or said already, it turns out there are millions of reasons to remain curious about, and protective of, the natural world. There are explorations to embark upon, and mysteries yet to be solved; what or how the cave robber hunts still eludes entomologists. There are poetic observations, such as Linnaeus’, still to be made. But this relies on safeguarding the habitats of the plants and animals we know, and the ones we haven’t yet had the privilege of laying eyes upon.
Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for their content.
Heather Hansen is an environmental journalist working with the Red Lodge Clearinghouse /Natural Resources Law Center at CU Boulder, to help raise awareness of natural resource issues.Photo of Trogloraptor spider. Credit: Joel Ledford, Calif. Academy of Sciences
Photo of Southwestern willow flycatcher. Credit: USDA
Image of Carl Linnaeus. Credit: Smithsonian Institute