ESA rewrite looms

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, September 1997:

years of political battling over Endangered
Species Act reauthorization appear headed
toward quick resolution.
The White House in late July signaled
eagerness to lower the profile of ESA
issues before the 1998 presidential campaign,
when both vice president Albert Gore and
Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt may seek to
succeed Bill Clinton by building a similar
coalition of moderate conservative and traditional
Democratic support.
As presiding officer over the Senate,
negotiating ratification of international treaties,
Gore has pleased conservatives by favoring
trade over strict species protection under the
Convention on International Trade in
Endangered Species, the International
Whaling Convention, and the Declaration of
Panama, recently implemented by repeal of
the “dolphin-safe” tuna import standard (see
page 2). Babbitt has curried conservative
favor, meanwhile, by rapidly increasing the
number of National Wildlife Refuges open to
hunting and fishing: half when he took office,
nearly two-thirds now.

But because of their high-profile
defense of the Endangered Species Act, boosting
Clinton’s 1996 re-election campaign, both
Gore and Babbitt are potentially vulnerable to
the charge of favoring obscure and unpopular
bugs and other beasties over Joe Sixpack’s private
property rights.
Having seen that opposition to the
ESA can win a Congressional majority but not
the White House, leading Republicans are
apparently willing to sacrifice the ESA-versusproperty
rights issue for a claim to mutually
acceptable success at an ESA rewrite.
Babbitt began the end game on July
18, announcing intent to restructure the ESA
so as to focus on protecting critical habitat
instead of individual endangered plants and
animals. This was the approach favored by his
predecessor, Manuel Lujan, under the
Republican administration of former president
George Bush. What it really means is writing
into the ESA a legal emphasis on property
issues––and a formal embrace of conservation
biology, the management branch of ESA-related
sciences, to the virtual exclusion of discovery,
which already gets secondary concern

Explained Los Angeles Times staff writer James
Gerstenzang, “Babbitt’s approach follows the theory behind
such efforts as the community conservation program in southern
California. In that program, land is set aside to preserve
the habitat of a bird, the gnatcatcher, while other wildlife habitat
is opened for development.”
If enough of the right habitat is preserved, species
can be saved. But the Babbitt approach requires extensive
knowledge of the habitat needs of species, which may be lacking
in the frequent cases where species are already near extinction
when first identified, and may occupy remnant habitat
which is nonetheless not their most favorable habitat.
The Babbitt approach also potentially requires perpetual
maintenance of habitat in an unevolving condition––an
impossibility, as exemplified by more than a century of debate
over the maintenance of Yellowstone National Park, since natural
biological forces tend to work toward transformation of
habitat by the most successful species within it. An ESA policy
that in effect creates parks may prove politically popular, without
actually saving the most endangered plants and animals.
Finally, the Babbitt approach ingenuously presupposes
that political forces will not trade good habitat for bad to
facilitate development. The present ESA in theory prevents
that, since endangered plants and animals and their critical
habitat may be protected, at least on paper, wherever they
occur. In practice, such broad-ranging protection has already
been extensively compromised, most recently by the extermination
of endangered wolves suspected of attacking cattle and
sheep in Minnesota and Montana, to reduce the opposition of
ranchers to both wolf recovery and grizzly bear reintroduction.
According to Associated Press, the 10-member
Western Governors Association met following Babbitt’s
announcement to produce a statement favoring an ESA rewrite
offered by Senator Dirk Kempthorne (R-Idaho), chair of the
Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee subcommittee
on endangered species.
Babbitt and Kempthorne, Environment and Natural
Resources Committee chair John Chaffee (R-Rhode Island),
Senator Harry Reid (D-Nevada), and Senator Max Baucus (DMontana)
reportedly then met to resolve differences over the
Kempthorne bill. The discussion stalled over “consultation
with federal agencies, water rights, and protection of habitat
on private land,” the Defenders of Wildlife electronic newsletter
Greenlines said on August 7, but is expected to resume after
the Congressional summer recess.
House Democrat George Miller (D-California) tried
to head off damaging aspects of the Kempthorne bill on July
31, introducing an ESA reauthorization measure backed by 50
fellow House Democrats, plus Republicans Connie Morella of
Maryland and Christopher Shays of Connecticut. The Miller
bill, reported San Francisco Chronicle staff writer Alex
Barnum, would “shift the emphasis of wildlife protection to the
recovery of imperiled species, provide tax incentives and federal
assistance for landovers to protect the habitat of imperiled
species on their property”; and “share costs between private
landowners and the federal government if initial species recovery
efforts turn out to be insufficient.”
Since observers believe virtually all the support the
Miller bill will ever attract came at introduction, it may have
been chiefly a ploy to raise the profile of the issues it addresses.
If the Kempthorne bill meets enough opposition, moderating
language from the Miller bill might be added by amendment.
The appearance of impending agreement on ESA
revision did not halt wise-use efforts to micromanage ESA
application in the field, as on July 22 the Senate
Appropriations Committee approved an amendment to the
Interior Department appropriations bill which would delete
funding for grizzly bear reintroduction into the SelwayBitterroot
Wilderness, along the Idaho/Montana border.
Business as usual
The ESA spotlight through the summer remained as
ever on conflicts between conservation biology and economic
and political interest.
Babbitt prepared his conciliatory announcement on
ESA reauthorization after a five-day trip to investigate potential
conflicts between oil exploration and species protection inside
the Alaska National Petroleum Reserve, a matter of particular
concern to Alaskan Senator Frank Murkowski and
Representative Don Young, both Republicans, who respectively
head the Senate and House Resource Committees. Their
approval will be essential to the success of any ESA reauthorization
bill during the present Congress.
While Babbitt and other senior Interior officials were
away, warden William Patrick and associate warden Bernie
Ellis of the Federal Corrections Institute in South Dade,
Florida, had 40 acres of protected pine rockland bulldozed for
security reasons, then figuratively thumbed their noses.
Environmentalists mourned habitat for hundreds of plant
species plus bald eagles, diamondback rattlesnakes, and occasional
visiting bobcats.
“The biodiversity of the pineland plant communities
ranks among the highest in any habitat, anywhere in the
world,” explained Louisiana State University ecologist
William Platt to Miami Herald reporter Cyril T. Zaneski.
Returned Ellis, “We think it looks fantastic now.
We’re going to plant it with rye grass and keep it mowed.
We’re doing nothing but good things to manage the land.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on July 17 listed
remnant populations of jaguars recently rediscovered in
Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas as an endangered species,
under legal pressure from the Southwest Center for Biological
Diversity, but was ripped by SCBD biologist Peter Galvin for
simultaneously excluding four of the five known populations of
the southwestern willow flycatcher from designated critical
habitat for the species, of which an estimated 300 to 500 pairs
remain. Southwestern willow flycatcher habitat is now protected
along 600 miles of riverbank––but not around Hoover Dam
and Roosevelt Lake in Arizona, and Lake Isabella, in
California, which may be the habitat most at risk.
The SCBD also lost a round when a federal judge
amended a previous ruling to permit development on 290 acres
of designated critical habitat for the cactus ferruginous pygmy
owl, of which just 19 are known to survive in Arizona.
An ESA-related dispute of a more arcane nature escalated
on July 15 when the Central Arizona Water Conservation
District charged in a federal lawsuit that Babbitt engaged in “an
abuse of discretion” three years ago by ordering the Arizona
Bureau of Reclamation to spend $500,000 a year for the next 25
years to protect the endangered spikedace, loach minnow, Gila
topminnow, and razorback sucker from non-native fish who
might invade their habitat via the Central Arizona Project.
CAP, a $4.78 million, 336-mile water conduit, has already
been penetrated by non-native striped bass.
The Colorado-based Biodiversity Legal Foundation
on June 26 asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list
Baird’s sparrow as a threatened species. A neotropical migratory
songbird, the sparrow is among the more widely distributed
representatives of a whole class of birds now in decline. The
Biodiversity Legal Foundation mentioned as causal factors the
loss of suitable grassland habitat due to livestock grazing, haying,
irrigation, and use of pesticides, collisions with communications
towers, competition from non-native species, and
fire prevention practices––a series of clues to the possible targets
of follow-up suits if the listing is won.
Ruling on a classic conflict between conservation
biology and economic concern, District of Columbia U.S.
District Judge Paul L. Friedman on July 25 gaveled down the
Building Industry Association of Superior California’s attempt
to overturn ESA protection of California fairy shrimp.
Reported Chris Bowman of the Sacramento Bee,
“The case attracted national interest because of the type of
species and the high stakes real estate interests involved.
Builders were astonished when environmentalists succeeded in
listing such a diminutive, lowly creature.”
The Sacramento region may have suffered the most
recent recorded extinction of a mammal in January, when
Stanislaus River flooding put an estimated 98% of Caswell
Memorial State Park in southern San Joaquin Valley under up
to 20 feet of water. The 258-acre park was the last known
refuge of the riparian bush rabbit, a tiny cottontail. Rarely venturing
more than a few feet from dense riverbank underbrush,
riparian bush rabbits were considered common 50 years ago,
but water reclamation and flood control projects destroyed most
of their habitat. A 1993 count put the Caswell population at
213 to 312 rabbits. Traditionally, the rabbits survived floods
by climbing into the lower branches of willow trees, but this
time the waters didn’t recede for seven weeks. Twenty-two
nights of attempted live trapping in April and May found no
rabbits. If none are found this fall, the riparian bush rabbit will
be pronounced history. Even if some do survive, their genetic
diversity may have diminished to the point of no return.
Ironically, the same flooding that apparently killed
all the rabbits reportedly prompted some ranchers to sell riparian
lands along the San Joaquin River for rabbit refuge use.
Idaho State University graduate students are currently
studying the suspected decline of a similar species, the guinea
pig-sized pygmy rabbit, not yet on either the federal endangered
or threatened list. Individuals have a range of little more
than 100 feet, but isolated colonies appear to survive on sagebrush
plain in all six northwestern continental states.
Broad distribution would seem to protect the pygmy
rabbit from extinction––but the widely separated subpopulations
may also have evolved into distinct subspecies. There is
an immediate precedent for such a finding. In July the
Smithsonian Institution accepted evidence from ornithologists
Braun and Jessica Young that the sage grouse of the Gunnison
Valley in southwestern Colorado are genetically unique. They
can crossbreed with other sage grouse in captivity, but apparently
last crossbred in the wild circa 300,000 years ago. The
Gunnison sage grouse are smaller, the males have a unique
black tuft, and they have a different mating call. Like other
sage grouse, they remain legal to hunt.
Taxonomic dancing
Though conservation biology necessarily underlies
the protection and recovery of species, the most critical endangered
species issues still ahead may emerge from cryptozoology,
cryptobotany, and taxonomy, the much suspect sciences
of discovering and naming hidden animals and plants––like
Gunnison sage grouse, and of greater importance, the
“diminutive, lowly creatures in the food chain” upon which
other species depend.

Until the mid-20th century, when
most non-insect and non-microbial species
were presumed to have been discovered, virtually
all field biology involved the discovery
and identification of new species. Taxonomy,
the naming part, was the mainstream of field
biology, and the discipline easily survived the
ridicule attending such hoaxes and burlesques
as taxidermically cobbled “mermaids” and
“jackalopes.” The leading biological controversy
of the first half of the 20th century may
have been the taxonomic debate between the
“lumpers,” who favor broad species definitions,
and the “splitters,” whose definitions
are sometimes so narrow that even distinguishing
subspecies differentiation from individual
difference can be difficult.
By the rise of the environmental and
animal rights movements, however, the pace
of sensational authentic discovery had slowed,
and the further quest for discovery––outside
the lab––became equated with seaches for
Bigfoot, the Abominable Snowman, space
invaders, and monsters in Loch Ness.
Neither the first federal endangered
species act, approved in 1969, nor the ESA,
passed in 1973, accorded much attention to
preserving, protecting, and perhaps recovering
species which were not already known.
Nor has discovery had much part in the long
debate over ESA reauthorization, except to
the extent that discoveries by conventional
conservation biologists may force reappraisal
of species recovery plans.
“Taxonomists are the people who
identify, name and describe new species,
sorting them into related groups from kingdom
and phylum all the way down to genus and
species,” explains Portland Press Herald science
writer Meredith Goad. “Since the 1970s,
the number of experts in the field has dwindled
dramatically as older taxonomists have either
retired or died. At the same time, younger
scientists have lost interest in a career they
view as nothing more than the ‘bookkeeping’
of the natural world.”
Yet, taking advantage of recent
breakthroughs in genetic science and increased
opportunity to explore remote habitats, such
as rainforests and the oceans, cryptozoology
and cryptobotany are again rapidly expanding
the global catalog of known species––and creating
taxonomic as well as legal, economic,
and political headaches.
“My colleagues and I have just discovered
a distinctive new monkey species
between the Rio Madeira and the Rio Tapajos
in Brazil’s cental Amazon,” wrote
Conservation International president and primatologist
Russell Mittermeier in the August
11 Newsweek. “In the process, we may have
located two or three other tree monkeys and a
tree porcupine previously unknown to science.
The latest monkey is the seventh new primate
found in Brazil alone since 1990, and others
crop up on a regular basis in different regions
of the tropics. Scientists working in
Madagascar discover a new frog or chameleon
species just about every month. Entomologists
fogging the canopy of rainforest trees uncover
so many new beetle species there isn’t enough
museum space to house them. And as we
finally explore the deep-sea ocean trenches,
we are finding creatures that don’t even fit
within the definitions of plant or animal.”
Most newly found species must be
presumed endangered in fact, if not by law,
but only taxonomists can start the process of
identifying them as such, by first establishing
what they are.
The Darling Marine Center, a
branch of the University of Maine, is among
the few institutions actively encouraging a
revival of classical taxonomy.
“In the last decade,” Darling Marine
Center professor Les Watling told Goad, “you
have people recognizing that species are going
extinct at an ever-increasing rate, and there
are very few people around now who can tell
you even what was here.” Without taxonomists,
he emphasized, “There’s no one with
the expertise to tell these species apart.”
Digging in the mudflats of the
Damariscotta River, near Walpole, Maine,
Watling’s students and visitors have so far
identified more than 50 types of sea sponge,
two new species of acorn worm, a new
species of feather-duster worm, a new species
of a marine invertebrate called a bryozoan,
and a phoronid, a sort of tentacled tube-worm.
Polyp colonies called “snail fur,” found on the
shells of hermit crabs, have turned out to be
not one species but many, each adapted to life
with a particular kind of hermit crab. The
regional catalog may keep growing for quite a
while longer.
The inventory
The Nature Conservancy recently
surveyed the status of 20,500 animal and plant
species native to North America, among an
estimated 100,000 known species, determining
that just 110 were extinct and another 416
“missing and feared extinct.” On the other
hand, two-thirds of all freshwater mussels,
half of all crayfish, 40% of the frogs, up to a
third of the plants, and about 15% of the birds
were deemed imperiled or vulnerable.
The Nature Conservancy, like other
mainstream conservation groups, emphasizes
species protection and recovery through conservation
biology, but especially as regards
the smaller creatures, the statistics may
change more as result of discovery than due to
direct intervention. Intensive investigations of
habitat, such as those of the Darling Marine
Center, could either multiply the number of
species believed to be imperiled, or decrease
the number believed to be extinct, or both.
Mammals are the best-documented
order, with the fewest new kinds found, but
459 new mammals were added to the known
inventory between the 1983 and 1993 editions
of the definitive Mammal Species of the World
catalog, which now lists 4,600 species in all.
Evolutionary biologist Lawrence
Heany, of the Field Museum in Chicago, has
discovered 15 new mammals himself, all in
the Philippines, and predicts the number of
known mammals could eventually reach 8,000.
Though most of Heany’s discoveries are small,
they include a flying fox with a three-foot
Mittermeier’s newly found blackcrowned
pygmy marmoset left, he estimated,
at least 20 more living primate species to be
discovered. Marc Van Roosmalen of the
National Institute for Amazon Research in
Manaus, Brazil, reported finding another on
August 12: the mouse-sized black-capped
dwarf marmoset. Most as yet undiscovered
primates may be marmosets and lemurs, both
diminutive and noctural, but there is also a
chance that genetic research will find distinctions
among some of the monkeys and apes.
Similar research has identified South
American four-eyed opossums as actually
belonging to at least two and perhaps four different
species. There seem to be two species
of African elephant, one adapted to savanna
and the other to rainforest. Asian rhinoceros
recovery has been complicated by recognition
of differences between Malaysia, Sumatran,
Indonesian, and Bornean subspecies. Similar
discoveries had already brought changes in
orangutan captive breeding protocols. Skunks
are apparently not mustalids, as was long
believed, but rather are their own genus. And
the very concept of “rodent” may require some
rethinking, since genetic evidence indicates
so-called rodents may represent the convergence
of widely disparate species at a common
body type, rather than differentiation from a
single ancestor. Their common ancestor was
much farther back, and probably no closer to
all rodents than to any other mammal.
“The discoveries have significance
far beyond mammology,” says Laura Tangley
of U.S. News & World Report. “Many new
species host a community of parasites and
other tiny creatures that also are unknown to
science. New mammals provide clues to relationships
among known species. And the publicity
that the animals generate helps environmentalists
rally public support for conserving
endangered natural habitats,” offsetting some
of the rancor generated by the land use
requirements of conservation.
Tales of the weird
Searches for the weird continue.
The four-day fifth annual International
Sasquatch Symposium held in Vancouver in
early June produced lots of headlines and eyewitness
accounts, but little biological evidence
to favor the most serious hypothesis that the
creature could exist. According to this hypothesis,
a giant ape of some sort came to North
America from Siberia before humans did, and
has somehow remained undiscovered in parts
of the Pacific Northwest. Sasquatch enthusiasts
took heart from Chinese researcher Wang
Fangchen’s report that on May 24 his privately
financed Committee for Research on Strange
and Rare Creatures found 15-inch footprints
purportedly left by a 440-pound yeti, the
quasi-mythical Asian equivalent of Sasquatch,
at the 8,580-foot level in the northwestern part
of the Shennonjia National Nature Reserve.
If Sasquatch exist, they presumably
fanned out from Africa like the other great
apes, but unlike others before modern
humans, crossed the Himalayas and Siberia in
order to reach North America.
About a month after the Sasquatch
Symposium failed to attract Sasquatches,
despite the proximity of the Sasquatch
Provincial Forest, Italian adventurer Reinhold
Messner told media he’d photographed three
yeti in the Himalyan highlands, who were purportedly
covered with white fur, are nocturnal,
and according to Messner, hunt yak. Messner,
some reporters stipulated, is “known for making
sometimes far-fetched claims after highaltitude
treks under extreme conditions.”
By late July, the search for
Sasquatch shifted to remote parts of South
Carolina and Florida, where various locals
and a busload of British tourists visiting the
Big Cyprus National Preserve all claimed to
have seen a giant “skunk-ape,” previously
reported in the South Carolina vicinity in
1977. The creature was described as “about
seven feet tall, flat-faced, broad-shouldered,
covered with long fur, and reeking of skunk,”
reported Cyril T. Zaneski of the Miami Herald.
No one mentioned the possibility
that the skunk-ape might have been just a big
poacher wearing so-called scent lure.
Misidentifications and hoaxes may
account for the overwhelming majority of
alleged sightings of quasi-mythical creatures,
also including the lake monsters common to
northern regions, whose descriptions tend to
suggest floating logs, swimming moose, and
giant sturgeon. Remains of oceanic “sea monsters”
almost inevitably turn out to be decomposing
whales, swordfish, or basking sharks,
with the occasional giant squid. Surfacing
oarfish may account for sightings of the socalled
Cadborosaurus, off British Columbia.
The growth of the exotic pet trade
coincides with the apparent “return” of the
officially extinct eastern puma and the come

back of wolves here and there, independent of official reintroduction.
The animals in question are more likely either abandoned
pets or the offspring of abandoned pets.
Feral former pets also account for giant snakes found
in the Everglades and elsewhere, piranhas hooked by North
American fishers several times a year, rumors of alligators in
urban sewer systems that are sometimes even true, and many
other amateur discoveries of well-known animals in places
where nature didn’t put them.
Some mythical species are eventually recognized as
real species who were simply misrecognized by ancient
observers. Dragons, for instance, may have been hypothesized
from discoveries of fossilized dinosaur bones. Some
scholars believe the earliest depictions of griffins came from
the same part of China where protoceratops and oviraptor fossils
are commonly found, while European dragons more often
resemble mosasaurs and iguanadons––the first of the great
Jurassic and Cretaceous beasts who were correctly identified
from fossils found in The Netherlands and England.
Erich Thenius of the Vienna Paleontological Institute
reported in April that a serious investigation of the purported
two species of unicorn described by the Roman historian Pliny
indicates they were actually the Indian rhinoceros and the
Suleiman markhor, a type of screw goat (goats with long twisted
horns) native to Pakistan. Both are now highly endangered.
French ethnologist Michel Peissel in November 1996
claimed to have identified the fabled furry ants who according
to Herodotus enriched the Persian empire by mining gold. In a
book entitled The Ants’ Gold, Peissel points out that the
Persian word for marmot means “mountain ant.” During 14
years of research in the Minaro highlands along the border
between India and Pakistan, Peissel learned that big marmots
on the Dansar plateau, on the Pakistani side, are known for
throwing up soil rich in gold dust from their burrows, and that
villagers collect marmot mounds to extract the gold, which is
also exposed by landslides and soil erosion.
“Ideally we should make a full archaeological and
geological survey of the area,” Peissel told Marlese Simons of
The New York Times. “But it’s right in the line of fire of both
sides. The locals tell us that the marmots are dwindling.
Soldiers are constantly taking potshots at them.”
Fighting over the bones
Most authentic “new” animal species discoveries,
other than those involving insects, come through paleontology.
Previously unknown kinds of dinosaur are identified every few
weeks. Other recent paleontological finds have pushed the origin
of bats and penguins back toward the time of the dinosaurs,
found that so-called “European” rodents may have invaded
Australia as long as five million years before human explorers
from Europe, and have revised the hypothetical ancestry and
distribution of great apes, including humans.
But completely unknown living animals are found
surprisingly often––especially in remote habitats and within
areas that were until recently off limits due to military use.
Late last year, for instance, Cuban zoologist Alberto
R. Estrada and Pennsylvania State University biology professor
S. Blair Hedges disclosed their 1993 find of what was widely
acclaimed as the world’s smallest tetrapod, or non-fish vertebrate––an
orange-striped black frog who lives under rainforest
leaf litter on the western slope of Monte Iberia, Cuba. The
frog could easily squat on a dime with no part hanging over. A
previously known frog, however, the male Brazilian
Psyllophryne didactyla, turned out to be still smaller.
The Philippine Department of Science and
Technology in April disclosed the discovery of a two-and-ahalf-inch-long
bat, belonging to the lesser flat-headed bat family,
and two new rodents, of the Chrotomys and Phloemys pal –
lidus families. All three inhabit dense bamboo forest inside the
Subic Bay Freeport, formerly a U.S. Navy base.
Among other recent rainforest finds, Thai biologist
Paiboon Naiyanetr is seeking endangered species protection for
Dromothelphusa Sangwan, or “elegant mountain crab,” a nocturnal
creature the size of a human palm, whose shell includes
shades of brown, blue, white, red and purple. He discovered
the crab in fresh-water streams near Chiang Mai, a village in
the heavily wooded north of Thailand.
But a 2,500-mile trek up the Amazon and tributaries,
led by University of Arizona ichthyologist John G. Lundberg,
has probably trumped any other mission of discovery during
the 20th century. Funded by the National Science Foundation,
the ongoing Lundberg voyage has collected more than 240 previously
unknown fish species. Lundberg thinks the Amazon
basin may hold about 2,000 fish species in all, twice as many
as the whole of North America. Many of the newly found fish
are blind, apparently using self-generated electromagnetic
fields to navigate the murky waters and find their prey. Some,
heavily armored, may be among the most ancient fish alive.
Insect species discoveries are so frequent as to rarely
make headlines. One exception was the recent discovery of a
new species and genus of water-running midge, or flightless
fly, on Heggie Rock, South Carolina––a unique 220-millionyear-old
outcropping owned by The Nature Conservancy. The
100-acre site was already known for hosting a remarkable concentration
of rare and endangered plants and insects.
Taxonomy vs. the life ethic
A more problematic insect discovery was the June
1997 identification of the St. Valentine’s Day moth by Linda
Barnett and Craig Ems of Warwick University, who trapped
three females a year earlier on Tacca Macca, a coral atoll within
the Chagos, part of the British Indian Ocean Territory.
Confirmation that the moths were a new species came when
they located the remains of a male, collected 20 years ago by
amateur naturalist Mont Hirons, of Banbury, Oxfordshire.
Barnett formally named the species Stictoptera hironsi, after
Hirons, who is now 81.
“I was going to get the moth checked out by the
Natural History Museum,” Hirons told London Times environment
correspondent Nick Nuttall, “but it was one of the thousands
of things one never got around to doing. It was quite a
surprise to find out it was a new species. It shows there is still
a role for the amateur in this field.”
But the discovery of the St. Valentine’s Day moth
raised another problem, particularly acute as regards the avidly
collected moths and butterflies: the rush by both amateurs and
institutional collections to obtain rare species has pushed some
to extinction and put others in peril. Taxonomists from John
James Audubon into the present have long contended that the
importance of identification and classification is so great that if
one sees perhaps the sole survivor of a previously unidentified
species, scientific duty dictates killing it to preserve the specimen.
In effect, this view holds, scientists should shoot first
and ask questions later.
The late Philippine ornithologist Dioscoro Rabor
apparently shot first in 1965, bagging sunbirds wholesale for
American museums without necessarily asking questions at all.
“They were apparently stashed in drawers full of sunbird
skins without so much as a second glance until recently,
after an expedition to Minanao in 1993 collected what appeared
to be a previously unknown species of sunbird,” recounted former
Audubon editor Les Line earlier this year in The New York
Times. New and old specimens were then matched to identify
Lina’s sunbird, the 126th known sunbird species.
The late ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson, revolted
by the practice of shooting birds in order to study them, produced
the renowned Peterson field guides in a successful effort
to popularize ethology, the science of live observation, soon
after Konrad Lorenz illustrated the shortcomings of taxonomy
through ethological studies of greylag geese. It was the life
ethic advanced by Peterson, Lorenz, and the divers Jacques
Cousteau and Sylvia Earle, that simultaneously stimulated conservation
biology and sent classical taxonomy into eclipse during
the mid-20th century. Most people interested in endangered
species today, including many scientists, would argue
that anyone who shoots a rare creature just to stuff and study it
should be stuffed into a prison cell to study the walls.
The life ethic prevailed in April 1996 when John A.
Hart of the Wildlife Conservation Society accidentally caught a
Congo Bay owl in a net he had been using to capture and
observe other species, on an expedition to the Itombwe forest
of eastern Zaire. Hiking back to base at Lake Tanganyika after
a four-week journey into the habitat of Grauer’s gorilla, where
Hart documented two new gorilla populations, “We had carelessly
left one corner of one net open,” he recounted later,
“and the bird just flew into the corner of the net that had not
been completely closed.”
The Wildlife Conservation Society is the umbrella for
the Bronx Zoo, Central Park Zoo, and the New York
Aquarium, and in the pre-Endangered Species Act “bring ‘em
back alive” days, even a zoo biologist who balked at killing a
rare animal might have seized the chance to add one to a living
collection. Not Hart. He just photographed and measured the
owl, then returned her to the forest. Later he achieved the
identification by matching the photos to the only previously
known specimen, collected for a Belgian museum in 1951.
Lack of a dead specimen thus far prevents formal scientific
recognition of the most sensational rediscovery of a
species in recent years: John Blashford-Snell’s find,
announced in July 1996, of a densely furred Himalayan “subspecies
of Asian elephant,” as London Times science editor
Nigel Hawkes conservatively describes it.
“The elephants are exceptionally large and have huge
domed foreheads which make them look like mammoths,”
Hawkes continued in a recent update. “On the first expedition,
Blashford-Snell and team found two males. On the most recent
trip, they saw a herd of four cow elephants with five calves,”
whom they videotaped.
Blashford-Snell is now attempting to track and identify
the whole population. His expeditions are financed by John
Aspinall, owner of two British zoos––and are conducted under
strict security, to prevent anyone who might shoot one of the
apparent remnant mammoths from getting anywhere near them.
Yellowstone Ecosystem Studies chief Robert
Crabtree in 1991 discovered another relic of the Ice Age, the
grey ghost fox, identified through a combination of observation
and fecal sampling. Also known as the Beartooth Fox,
the so-called grey ghost is probably the most primitive surviving
fox typ, according to DNA analysis. Looking somewhat
like a red fox, the grey ghost is larger, woollier, hunts marmots
on alpine tundra well above the normal fox range, and
somehow eluded human notice for more than a century while
living just a few miles from Yellowstone National Park.
The authenticated and perhaps soon to be authenticated
finds give new impetus to the continued quest of other scientists
for quasi-mythical species whose existence is nonetheless
supported by some seemingly credible evidence. Thus Ivan
Mackerle plans a third expedition to the Gobi desert in search
of the five-foot-long blood-red Mongolian death worm, which
supposedly lives deep beneath the shifting sands and squirts
venom at attackers. Roy Mackal has ventured twice to the
Congo, seeking the Mokele-mbembe, an aquatic creature that
may be either something like a pleisiosaur or just an awkwardly
drawn wading giraffe. David Oren has for nine years combed
the Mato Grosso jungle of Brazil, investigating the alleged
presence of Mapinguari, a giant beast with 22-pound droppings,
a booming cry, red hair, and a disabling stench. Oren
thinks Mapinguari may actually be the supposedly extinct giant
sloth, believed to have gone extinct circa 8,540 years ago.
Looking for smaller and less exotic creatures tends to
bring a quicker payoff. Traveling 10,000 miles across Africa,
English amateur naturalist discovered four previously unidentified
African reed frogs earlier this year, after finding a species
now named for him, Hyperolius pickersgilli, in Natal in 1983.
The prestige of identifying microscopic species got a
boost during the past year from the discovery of frozen water
on Jupiter, Mars, and the earth’s moon, which might facilitate
life. Such extraterrestrial life would have to evolve, however,
under conditions resembling only the coldest, darkest habitats
on earth, and might derive their primary energy from chemical
reaction or volcanic heat, rather than sunlight.
Possibilities were illuminated by video exploration of
the Southern Hills deep-sea volcanic formations off Australia in
April, where according to Andrew Darby of the S y d n e y
Morning Herald, investigators found “Spindly sea spiders with
abdomens so small their gonads are in their legs, sea lilies that
creep slowly over the bottom, and crabs with strange articulated
pincers, among dozens of species living in tall coral
forests.” Each sea mount seemed to harbor species unique to it.
Even more potentially relevant to the search for life
in space was the summer discovery of rosy pink ice worms,
previously unknown to science, thriving in methane-rich ice
extruding into the bottom sediments of the Gulf of Mexico
from hydrothermal vents, whose other end is in deep oil
deposits. Romberg Tiburon Center investigators Charles Fisher
and David Julian, who identified the ice worms, believe they
may graze on bacteria who can take nutrients directly out of the
methane, or may have such bacteria inside their intestinal
tracts. They may be toxic to fish and crabs, who were seen
swimming past the ice worms without showing interest.
“Frozen methane is known to exist elsewhere in the
solar system,” pointed out San Francisco Chronicle s c i e n c e
writer David Perlman. “On Triton, Neptune’s largest moon,
the icy crust erupts in violent ‘ice volcanoes’ filled with the
frozen gas.”

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