Small wonders, big world

An argument for conservation

  • Newly discovered Perdita vespertina.

    Terry Griswold, USDA-ARS Bee Lab

You are on a mission to catch and identify wild bees that pollinate rare desert plants. You must sneak up, pounce gently and net your quarry without breaking delicate wings and flowers. Next, you transfer the netted bees to cyanide-laced "kill jars" that swiftly end the struggle and keep them in good condition.

Then you pack the dead bees in your luggage and fly home to your lab in Utah. At least, that's what you do if you're on David Tanner's research team. For several years, Tanner, a Utah State University post-doc, and two grad students have been studying complex bee-plant relationships and assisting habitat restoration in an oasis called the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, near Pahrump, Nev.

They generated some excitement in April, when they announced they've discovered two new species -- tiny but spectacular bees in the Perdita genus, each a tenth of an inch long with iridescent blue-green thoraxes and orange-yellow-striped abdomens.

The discoveries, netted by master's-degree candidate Catherine Clark and verified by a federal bee expert, "underscore how little we know about the natural world," Tanner says.

The resulting flurry of headlines around the West implied that such discoveries are unusual, but really they're not. In recent years, researchers have found a new species of Indian paintbrush in Washington, a new bacteria with "special light-harvesting antennae" in Yellowstone National Park's thermal pools, a new "ice beetle" in California's Trinity Alps, new mosses in Yosemite National Park, a "giant" fairy shrimp (three inches long) that eats smaller shrimp in seasonal Idaho desert pools, a new finch and a new primrose in Idaho's mountains, a new fern and a new phlox on wealthy conservationist Ted Turner's Vermejo Park Ranch in New Mexico, "the first known gilled underwater mushrooms in the world" in Oregon's Rogue River, a new alpine fungus in Montana's Beartooth Mountains, new species of moths in Colorado and Arizona mountain ranges, and a new fungus in Wyoming cow pies. And those are just the stories that have appeared in mainstream news.

Similar discoveries are made every day around the world. The American West may not be on a par with Indonesia or the Amazon, but it's a notable hotspot for biodiversity. And some of our nation's most intact ecosystems survive on Western public lands, such as national parks and wildlife refuges, as well as on many conservation-oriented ranches.

Most of these discoveries get no publicity beyond scientific circles, but every one is important -- not only intrinsically, but also in practical terms. Medicines, better fuels and other breakthroughs have been developed from studying new species. Research on native bees has become particularly important, as domestic honeybees -- pollinators of most crops -- are slammed by hordes of mites, colony collapse and other troubles. Recently, some native bees have even been harnessed for crop pollination. Each newly discovered species advances our overall understanding.

James Pitts, a Utah State assistant biology professor who oversees Tanner's work, has himself discovered hundreds of species of velvet ants, a type of fuzzy-looking wasp. He's doing genetic research on them to learn how climate change thousands of years ago affected species diversity. That could make it easier to predict how the current climate trend will shake out, and help determine carbon policies, he says.

The researchers often emphasize a message: We need to protect our wild and semi-wild areas, because we still don't know what's out there. Conservation is an insurance policy against ignorance.

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