ASU institute focuses on new species' discovery - East Valley Tribune: News

ASU institute focuses on new species' discovery

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Posted: Saturday, June 7, 2008 6:04 pm | Updated: 11:28 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Quentin Wheeler is a "bug guy." He's spent his entire career looking for and studying bugs - beetles to be specific - and has made some incredible new discoveries.

INTERACTIVE: Learn about the top 10 species discovered in 2007

Quentin Wheeler is a "bug guy."

He's spent his entire career looking for and studying bugs - beetles to be specific - and has made some incredible new discoveries.

INTERACTIVE: Learn about the top 10 species discovered in 2007

One perk of being the guy who finds new bugs is that you retain naming rights to the creepy-crawlies. He's named beetles after Roy Orbison and Darth Vader.

One naming got particular attention a few years ago when he and a student embarked on giving titles to 65 new beetles they were working with.

They decided, for fun, to name three of the beetles after three very famous politicians - Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and George Bush. The names got a lot of attention in the media, especially in England, where he was living at the time.

A few days later he got an unexpected phone call.

"I picked up the phone and there was this very nice woman's voice on the line and she said, 'Please hold for the president,'" he said. "A minute later, President Bush was on the phone. We chatted for about five minutes. He wanted to thank me."

For all the fun he has doing his job, it's a lot of work. There are times in his career where he has spent 10 years working with a single species.

But the Arizona State University scientist said that's no longer an option for taxonomists such as himself.

"Species are disappearing," he said. "I'm resigned to the fact that a huge number of species will go extinct in my lifetime. But it will be a double loss if we fail to document them before they go. It will diminish science forever."

In March, Wheeler officially opened ASU's International Institute for Species Exploration in order to find ways for taxonomists - scientists who name and classify living things - to work together and to work more efficiently in order to speed up new discoveries.

The center was put in motion two years ago in July when ASU hired Wheeler, who at the time was working in London at the Natural History Museum where he curated a collection of 30 million insect specimens. He had worked at Cornell University for more than 20 years before moving to London.

Wheeler and his colleagues at the institute hope to remove the bottlenecks in their work that slow down the process of finding new species.

For example, he said many of the tools taxonomists are using in the field today are 100 years old.

One of the goals of the institute is to create a sort of cyberclearinghouse for information about known species - including the names, photos and descriptions. That way, no matter where someone is working in the world, if they believe they've found something, they will be able to access information that can help them determine if they've made a discovery or found more of the same.

Another use of technology that Wheeler would like taxonomists to employ is remotely operable microscopes that would allow someone in the field to send images back to the museums and botanical gardens where the specimens are housed so that their finds can be immediately compared.

In the past, taxonomists had only two choices if they believed they found something new. Have the specimens sent to them for comparison - a costly process that put the specimens at risk. Or go to the specimens - a time-consuming and also expensive option that involved visiting collections around the world.

"My hope is that, in five years, taxonomy will be practiced very differently," Wheeler said. "That we have a cyberinfrastructure. That we have remote access to species. That we have an image library and teams of specialists throughout the world working together. That's a huge change from what we have today."

Because they're using old tools and old techniques, taxonomy has become kind of unhip in the world of science over the years. Wheeler and his fellow scientists are trying to give the field an image makeover. Earlier this month, the Top 10 New Species report was released, highlighting some of the most interesting discoveries among the thousands of new species found last year. An international committee of experts, chaired by Janine Caira of the University of Connecticut, selected the top 10 new species for the list.

The institute is also developing public outreach campaigns such as the Planet Bob short video and Web site created at ASU (www.PlanetBob.asu.edu). Through steps such as these, they're hoping to make taxonomy cool again.

"Why have we allowed it to go by the wayside for so many years?" Wheeler said. "It's the most fundamental part of biology."

That's true, said Anthony Gil, the assistant director of the institute, who oversees the nine collections at the university. In his experience, taxonomy has been much better received by the public than it has by other biologists.

Gil works mostly with fish found in and around coral reefs.

"People are very excited with what I've discovered," he said. "But it's not seen that way by other scientists. I think it's because ours is a descriptive science. Our field is important, though, because, until you know what a species is, you can't get anything else done in biology."

Gil hopes the work done at the institute will serve to get the public even more fascinated with this field and to inspire young people to study it.

"There's this amazing sense of discovery in finding something new," he said. "When you've been collecting in a tide pool that you know has been collected to death and something new pops up, it's exciting. To know that new things can pop up right under our noses."

Being a taxonomist isn't always glamorous. It involves treks to places deep within jungles and deserts, weeks away from home and long work days.

But in the mind of a taxonomist the world is yet to be discovered. Taxonomists know that, for example, more than 40 percent of the Amazon River basin is still unknown. And people like Wheeler are hoping that fact can inspire both scientists and wannabes to work even hard to find new forms of life.

"It's almost hard to get your head around how much we don't know," he said. "We're the generation who can make these discoveries. Think about that. It's like having an Indiana Jones moment."

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