In the evening, if I dare to leave the windows open, I am bombarded by moths and click beetles and bugged by Huhu beetles. Raucous cicadas rudely awaken me in the morning while white butterfly caterpillars chomp their way through the cabbages.
But then there are the gorgeous and the exotic creatures which stop me in my tracks and dissipate any hostility towards the pestiferous. They send me off to the books to try and make an identification.
Gorgeous steely blue lady birds which I can always find in the lime tree. A tiny native bee in the hay paddocks which I have yet to identify and a strange creature I always find on the Corokia shrubs. Green and yellow with a touch of white and with two "horns", at first glance it looks like a beetle but when disturbed it reveals itself to be a spider. I'm still working on finding out just who it is.
The wisteria vine is utterly infested with another strange creature which I have actually managed to identify as the larvae of an Australian green plant hopper. They bear a tuft of whitish hairs at the end of their bodies and jump a considerable distance when disturbed.
Why this desire, this compunction, a friend has asked, to name things, to identify them?
To show respect, is my response.
How many species are there in the world today? Most estimates fall between ten and 100 million. It is indeed remarkable that we in this modern world obsessed with measuring things, do not know to within an order of magnitude how many species we share the globe with, says Richard Leakey in his book The Sixth Extinction.
We have a good estimate of how many stars are in our galaxy. We know how many nucleotide bases constitute the human genetic blueprint and we can calculate to within a few hours when a comet will collide with Jupiter yet we cannot put a secure number on current species diversity. It is not through lack of knowing but through a lack of commitment. Governments have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the systematic study of stars but only a tiny fraction of that sum on the systematic study of nature here on Earth.
Of the estimates of ten to 100 million species that may exist on this planet only about 1.4 million have been recorded and identified. Even here in New Zealand the vast majority of species are unnamed and unknown. However, if we did make the commitment to “aim at nothing less than a full count, a complete catalogue of life on earth”, as Edward O Wilson urges, we would fail, as species are becoming extinct at an alarming rate. It is estimated that half the species will become extinct by the middle this century.
However, there have been at least five occasions in the very long history of the planet when nearly two thirds of its living creatures disappeared from the face of the earth. The end-Permian extinction, 225 million years ago, extirpated more than 95 per cent of marine animal species and almost as many on land. Virtually all scientists who are studying biological diversity agree that we are now in the midst of the sixth great crisis, this time precipitated entirely by man, Homo sapiens.
The sad fact of our history is that no matter where we have gone, destruction and extinction of species has followed. This is not just a matter of our recent history. When primitive man crossed the Bering Straits into North America, destruction of all the great herbivores in both North and South America followed. The movement of the human species into the Pacific Islands, Australia and New Zealand was also followed by mass extinction of species, in our case the great flightless birds among others. European expansion in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries merely accelerated the process.
With the continuing destruction of habitat in the face of industrial and agricultural expansion, both of which are aspects of continued population growth, the process of species extinction in the twentieth century has accelerated even more, to the point where our own future may well be threatened.
We have a moral duty to know as much as can be known about, "the endless forms most beautiful", as Darwin has said, with which we share this earth. It has become my credo, for once identified, once known and named, one cannot easily deny a creature's existence, cannot so easily destroy them.
Narena Olliver, 1998.
References: The Diversity of Life, E.O.Wilson;
The Sixth Extinction, Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin, 1995.