Warning, this one’s a long read! The received wisdom is that this is anathema to a modern reader but as the ents say…
I’ve been thinking a lot about maps recently. Specifically species distribution maps. Nowadays, at the click of a button you can bring up all kinds of mapped data that our predecessors would find nothing short of magical. Portals like GBIF, irecord (requires login) and NBN atlas represent some of the most impressive collaborative efforts to answer the simple biological question, where do you find different kinds of organisms. However number 1. They are incomplete. Many museum collections datasets are yet to be liberated, the literature needs to be endlessly combed through and I can only imagine the records and antiquated datasets that sit locked up in filing cabinets, on ageing PCs, floppy disks and yellowed print outs. However number 2. It will never be complete. Short of giving every blade of grass, tadpole, cormorant and hedgehog an GPS enabled anklet, our attempts are recording and documenting are ultimately in vain. There are vast swathes of organisms we don’t even know how to look for;- the tiny, cryptic, elusive, unloved and rare.
To me this is both humbling but also deeply worrying. How do we make any decisions about our interaction with the rest of organismal life if we don’t know all the facts? Human hubris in this area is also well documented. From disastrous deliberate introductions, accidental releases, biological control that goes wrong to the many, many ways in which organisms defy the rigid parameters we assume controls and restrains them, it would be fair to say our educated guesswork has been hit and miss to date. But a fear of the unknown has never been something to paralyse us for too long and this is where modelling and experimentation can incrementally fill in some of these gaps.
One thing that’s it’s taken me too long a time thinking about natural history to really appreciate is how, at least on land, our species has irrevocably interfered with (and not necessarily just ruined) everything, especially when it comes to Britain and Ireland. This (finally) brings me on to the molluscan history of Britain and Ireland, which is as much a geological and anthropological history as it is a molluscan one as I hope to elucidate below.
I originally wrote this way back in the alternate dimension of January 2020 and for reasons obvious and less obvious it never went out where I intended it to. I’ve found myself digging it out and sending it to others a few times since though so here’s me finally putting it out there, for ease of finding and sending on, more than anything else.
Public displays in museums are the thinnest veneers both in terms of the number and type of objects you encounter but also because very few museum colleagues get to work on exhibitions, very infrequently. Having said that, they are a very ‘loud’ veneer (mixed metaphors much) designed, as they are, to speak directly to a broad visitor group. I’ve recently been working on and thinking about large scale display changes in museums which come up fairly infrequently but present a lot of challenges, particularly when it comes to the natural world and especially looking at topics like biodiversity. How do you squeeze the vastness of the concept of biodiversity, a topic that is complex, important and flawed, into the finite volume of a display case for a diverse general visitor audience?
This week the Global Register of Introduced and Invasive Species was launched. Here’s the blurb from the website:
GRIIS, hosted by ISPRA, has been developed with co-funding from the European Union through the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity within the framework of the Global Invasive Alien Species Information Partnership (GIASIPartnership). The GIASIPartnership has come together in order to assist Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, and others, implement Article 8(h) and Target 9 of the Aichi Biodiversity Targets – “By 2020, invasive alien species and pathways are identified and prioritized, priority species are controlled or eradicated, and measures are in place to manage pathways to prevent their introduction and establishment
The Guardian coverage ran with the subhead “New catalogue expected to stand alongside red list as an international means to fight extinction, by helping to stop biological invasions”.
Invasive and introduced species are one of the key threats to ecosystems, agriculture and aquaculture. Accidentally and deliberately introduced ‘alien’ species can have a huge effect on the places they are introduced into and they are extremely poorly monitored. We don’t so much know when they appear, we just notice when they are there or when they’ve become established. Invasive species can compete with natives, affect trophic systems, bring diseases and pathogens with them which can run riot in invaded ecosystems and if this wasn’t bad enough for nature there are a whole host of human impacts (which means we should care). The need for GRIIS is a burning one. There’s just one problem. GRIIS is currently not very good. Not very good at all. Continue reading