Chapter Twenty-three — The Richness of Being
A Short History of Nearly Everything – by Bill Bryson
Chapter 23 — The Richness of Being
- The Natural History Museum in London, England contains over seventy million objects from every realm of life and every corner of the planet.
- Mosses aren’t really good for anything. Henry Conrad said, “Perhaps no great group of plants has so few uses, commercial or economic, as the mosses.”
- Carl Linne (or Carolus Linnaeus), from Sweden, became fascinated with the natural world as a young man, while still in his twenties, he began to produce catalogs of the world’s plant and animal species, using a system of his own devising, and gradually his fame grew.
- Now, the Linnaean system is so well established that we can hardly imagine an alternative. Before Linnaeus, systems of classification were often highly whimsical. In the end, Linnaeus named or recorded some 13,000 species of plants and animals. What Linnaeus had that no one else could touch were consistency, order, simplicity, and timeliness.
- After Linnaeus’ death, refinements were introduced to the classification system as the needs of the natural sciences grew more specialized. The system was bolstered by the gradual introduction of additional hierarchies.
- American birds spent the 19th century logged in different general from their avian cousins in Europe. Not until 1902 did naturalists begin at last to show a spirit of compromise and adopt a universal code.
- Taxonomy is described sometimes as a science and sometimes as an art, but really it’s a battleground. Even today there is more disorder in the system than most people realize.
- Concerning the number of ‘things’ that inhabit our planet, estimated range from 3 million to 200 million. And even more astounding is that some reports state that as much as 97% of the world’s plants and animal species may still await discovery.
- Of the organisms that we do know about, more than 99% are only sketchily described Wilson describes our state of knowledge as “a scientific name, a handful of specimens in a museum, and a few scraps of descriptive terms in a scientific journal.”
- Some sources put the known types of fungi at 70,000,while others put it at 100,000. Some say there are 4,000 species of worms and other say the number is 12,000. For insects the numbers run from 750,000 to 950,000 species. There are 20,000 types of lichens, 50,000 species of mollusks, and 400,000 species of beetles.
- Why do we know so little? Here are a few reasons:
- Most living things are small and easily overlooked. Our mattresses are home to perhaps two million microscopic mites, which come out in the wee hours to sup on our sebaceous oils and feast on crunchy flakes of skin. A pillow alone is usually home to 40,000 mites. If you go out in any wooded area and scoop up a handful of soil, you will be holding up to 10 billion bacteria, most of them unknown to science.
- We don’t look in the right places. Tropical rain forests cover only about 6% of the Earth’s surface, but harbor more than half of its animal life and about two-thirds of its flowering plants.
- There are not enough specialists. There are some hardy and little-known organisms known as bdelloid rotifers. They are microscopic animals that can survive almost anything. When conditions are tough, they curl up into a compact shape, switch off their metabolism, and wait for better times. You can drop them into boiling water or freeze them almost to absolute zero, but when returned to a more pleasing environment, they uncurl and move on as if nothing has happened. So far, about 500 species have been identified. Only a handful of scientists have investigated them. Gather together all the fungi found in a typical acre of meadow and you would have 2,500 pounds of the stuff. Without fungi, there would be no potato blights, Dutch elm disease, jock itch, or athlete’s foot, but there would also be no yogurt or beer or cheese.
- The world is a really big place. The okapi, a relative of the giraffe, exists in substantial numbers in the rain forests of Zaire, but its existence was not even known until the 20th century. The large flightless New Zealand bird called the takahe had been presumed extinct for 200 years before being found living in a rugged area of the country’s South Island. In the 1980’s a team of spelunkers entered a deep cave in Romania that had been sealed off from the outside world for a long time and found 33 species of insects and other small creatures (spiders, centipedes, lice) that were all blind, colorless, and new to science. They were living off microbes found in the scum of ponds.
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