Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Science of the seasons: Textbook case of collaboration

Did you ever wonder what it takes to write a book on topics like the “Birds of Alaska” or the “Insects of South-Central Alaska?” Is it possible for one person to have visited every part of Alaska? And have they been able to find every bug or bird that is found there?

Sometimes one person actually can put together a book about something they have studied extensively for a long period of time. In virtually every case, the author has done extensive field observations and some of these are from a lifetime of collections and investigations. As an example, Dominique Collet, who has recently written the above-mentioned insect book, has an extensive personal collection of insects from many parts of Alaska.

However, most authors look beyond their own experiences and collections. There are a variety of species lists that can be examined, as well as historical records to be perused. As an example, the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge is currently compiling a list of all the species of organisms that have been identified from the refuge.

In some cases these records can be very old. For instance, there are extensive ship’s logs and records of the animals that were seen or collected by G.W. Steller during Vitus Bering’s voyages from Russia to Alaska in the 1700s. It was fairly common for early exploring ships to take a naturalist on voyages to record the biota that were encountered. Charles Darwin was such a naturalist on the famous voyage of the Beagle.

Museums throughout the world are repositories for ship’s logs and many extensive biological collections. If well-preserved, well-cared-for and properly documented, these collections can be used by researchers and specialists for a great many years. Darwin’s many biological collections from the early 1800s can still be examined in the British Museum. Most authors will spend considerable time examining the collections held in various museums.

Many authors will be well-versed in the specific biota of an area but will join with others who have collected specimens from additional areas. Professors Ken Stewart, of Texas, and Mark Oswood, formerly with the University of Alaska Fairbanks, have written a book on “The Stoneflies (Plecoptera) of Alaska and Western Canada.” Together they compiled a vast collection of stoneflies. They have both visited many parts of Alaska, collecting stoneflies wherever they went.

In addition, there are many other colleagues in Canada and the U.S. who have shared their Alaska collections with them. In the book, they describe all the specimens they have examined, list the hundreds of biologists who have collected them and list where the insects were found. I have personally been sending them stonefly specimens from Alaska for almost 30 years.

Because many book topics are so large, it is common for several authors to join together to create a book on a particular group of organisms. This is common when there are vast numbers of different subcategories within the overall group. The most authoritative book on identifying aquatic insects is “An Introduction to the Aquatic Insects of North America.”

It was put together by three specialists — Rich Merritt, Ken Cummins and Marty Berg. Instead of being listed as authors, they are described as “editors.” While each wrote a section of this 1,214-page book, they have invited a variety of other international experts to write a section (with identification keys) about a specific order or family of aquatic insects. The number of insect groups covered in this book is so large that it is almost impossible for any one author to know them all. In this case, it has taken a large team to put together one book.

One of the hallmarks of taxonomists — specialists who identify and name newly discovered species — is a willingness to work with others on identifying unusual, unknown or new specimens. There is a constant sharing of specimens between specialists as they collaborate to understand the scope of any particular group of organisms.

As a new graduate student many years ago, I found the aquatic insect taxonomists and the authors of many of the well-known identification books were some of the most gregarious, engaging and helpful scientists I met.

A highlight of attending international meetings on aquatic ecology is seeing the cooperative and collegial work among so many taxonomists, as they try to understand the great variety of life that surrounds us.

David Wartinbee, Ph.D, J.D., is a biology professor at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus. He is writing a series of columns on the biology of the Kenai River watershed.

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