The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) publishes the global Red List of Threatened Species and provides the standard framework under which species are assessed under a number of categories; extinct, critically endangered, threatened etc. The red list categories are used globally, continentally and regionally and are assessed by expert groups and updated periodically. When you read about species being declared extinct or new reports on threatened biodiversity, many of the times that will be informed by data from the IUCN Red List or reflect a change in a species’ status on the/a list.
The information in the portal is referenced in national data books, museum and aquaria displays and the effort in compiling and reviewing this critical biodiversity data represents countless hours of work by thousands of contributors globally. It’s a model of international collaboration and the resource itself contains a rich amount of referenced information on a species by species basis useful for academic scientists, on the ground biologists and science communicators.
However, progress on updating the Red List across biodiversity is incredibly slow. Both in terms of the proportion of species which have been assessed but also the ongoing process of reviewing and updating information which even, with the best will in the world, will always lag behind the current status of these species in the world. At the time of writing, the headline figures on the portal are that 37,400 species are threatened with extinction, representing 28% of assessed species. Playing around with the numbers in the database, 134425 species have currently been assessed, 18752 are currently rated as Data Deficient (i.e. there isn’t enough information to make an evidenced assessment), 69149 are Least Concern (sort of the neutral position but can include species under declines of pressures regionally but not significant enough to warrant a negative status) and the rest of assessed species fall into categories of growing severity, the lowest being Near Threatened (7889) through to Extinct and Extinct in the Wild (900 and 79 species respectively). Although the numbers of assessed species seem encouragingly high, depending on what you take as an ‘upper limit’ for species diversity, only <1-<10% of species currently have an entry. At this rate, the task of assessing every species will never be complete, let alone the work needed to constantly review and update species’ statuses.
Something I’ve written about before but continues to surprise me when I encounter it, is that despite all the fancy software, listings of all the laborious statistical models, double blind tests and holy of all holies the untouchable power of peer review that is part and parcel of contemporary life sciences research you can still find, with relative ease, entrenched great chain of being philosophy that for me, completely torpedoes and sinks some of the merit of the research in question.
I’m not saying we can ever unhook ourselves from the delusion that we’re special wee beings amongst the rest of organismal life because we’ve got a chin, invented jazz, pot noodles and various other debatable accolades that propel us to the top of some pyramid or front of some queue but I do wish it wasn’t quite so explicit in the structure of degree courses, the language we use to talk about evolution, the way we frame interest in science stories and of course how we frame our relationship with the rest of the organismal life.
Read on, dear reader for the paradoxical platypus, concerned scientists who are earthworms and other lies we tell ourselves at night.
One of the great joys of social media is people getting in touch to share things they think you might like, or know about or have a hot take on. This week a few people got in touch asking about alien octopuses from space. Without paying it too much attention I’d assumed that this news story from August 2015 had got reposted somewhere where scientist Clifton Ragdale made a perfectly innocuous statement quoting Martin Wells who compared the octopus to an alien (in some senses). Sadly, this juicy quote was just too good to pass up which lead to the story in the science and geek media cropping up again and again under various headlines pertaining to octopuses from space.
I was wrong, however, to assume this old story had popped back up again. This time around there’s a ‘serious’ paper “Cause of Cambrian Explosion – Terrestrial or Cosmic?” (Steele et al. 2018) in what appears to be a serious journal, Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology making some frankly ridiculous and unscientific claims about octopuses and an extraterrestrial origin. I know I should leave it alone, to not even point more eyes in the direction of it but the fact that people are talking about it and at least a couple of serious-looking media outlets are fairly uncritically running the story Cosmos, the Express, means taking an in-depth look might be worthwhile. Continue reading →
Do people still use the word blogosphere? It’s been rather quiet here at Fistful of Cinctans and that’s because I’ve been writing a lot elsewhere, so like those cheap flashback sitcom episodes that are mostly made up of footage from older episodes, here’s some pointers to other stuff I’ve been writing instead. Continue reading →
Two bits of cephalopod stuff in the media last week, both of which raised the hackles but for different reasons relating to how the media (in this case mostly online) handles science reporting. I always find this kind of stuff interesting, doubly so since a really interesting talk at NatSCA 2015 Annual Conference where we heard from colleagues at the BBC and science programmers about how documentaries aren’t for those in the know. Both in terms or viewers and critical acclaim, the scientists may hate shoddy science but they aren’t the target audience. This shouldn’t give the media free rein to just report what they like but trying to squeeze complicated, limited and caveated findings into nice black and white narratives leads to more confusion. Things can only be bigger, smaller, disappearing, brand new, oldest, fastest, slowest etc. Biology, (un)fortunately, is rarely that simple.
Hot off the press this morning, the Telegraph reports that according to a new and unnamed paper in the journal Current Biology, half of world’s museum specimens are wrongly labelled. Now, I could dig out the original paper to see what the Oxford University and Royal Botanic Gardens colleagues actually said. I’m sure the estimations are vague and the researchers are ballparking the issue. I’m sure they didn’t conflate specimen labels with display labels as the Telegraph has. However, that headline is already out leading scores of people to throw their museum merchandise into the skip shaking their head “I trusted you museums, I trusted you”. So what’s needed isn’t clarification or explanation. What we need is excuses. STAT. Here are some off the shelf excuses for museum professionals who may be facing some tough questions this morning*.
It’s the bloody botanists. The reported story is all about ginger and potatoes. It’s the botanists. They are letting the side down.
It’s the bloody entomologists. Well over half of all natural history specimens are insects. So whichever way you look at it, entomologists are letting the side down.
It’s the hippies. Bizarrely, the coverage claims that more than 50 percent of the world’s natural history specimens have been discovered since 1969. Firstly, I’m not even sure what that means. Is a specimen discovered when it is collected? In any case, it’s all those hippies in the 60s that messed things up. They are letting the side down.
It’s the dyslexics. Unfortunately, for the Telegraph, in an article about specimens being mislabelled they’ve managed to incorrectly spell both Diplodocus and specimens. Even whilst making a joke about how the Natural History Museum is pretty sure that the dinosaur in Hintze Hall is dilpodocus (no italics, no capital). Yeah, it’s a dilpodocus, dilpy for short. Do spelling mistakes count? If they do then it’s the dyslexics, the dyslexics and human error are letting the side down.
It’s the loss of subject specialist knowledge in a hard hit museum sector where we are losing expertise year on year. Best not mention this though. It’s depressing.
It’s the bloody art historians and archaeologists. The headline doesn’t mention natural history museums so it’s probably the bloody art historians mislabelling paintings. Well there’s only a couple of hundred thousand of those, so it’s probably the bloody archaeologists too not labelling their pot fragments correctly. Art historians and archaeologists are letting the side down.
We’re only half way there. When we started, none of them were correct. Give us another 300 years and we’ll finish the job.
There we go folks. If you’ve got any excuses to help out colleagues in our time of need, why don’t you leave them in the comments. Together we can weather this ‘scandal’.
UPDATE: 17/11/2015 Corrected for many, many doubly ironic typos for writing this up in haste.
It’s almost moot to write a review of Jurassic World. I went to see it, chances are you went to see it, everyone went to see it and in the movie business that’s all that counts. There’s going to be a sequel. So what’s the point of palaeontologists and scientists taking to their blogs and Twitter accounts? Universal Studios and producers can’t hear us moaning about feathers on account of all the noise the cash is making as it is poured into a Scrooge McDuck style vault. But here it is anyway. Be warned, SPOILERS ahoy and I’ve recreated some scenes here in LEGO to illustrate my thoughts*. Continue reading →