During the last week of September 2011, a thousand marine biodiversitologists from more than 50 countries met in Aberdeen, Scotland. Naturally, there was a lot of information about patterns and processes related to marine biodiversity, and I will try to squeeze some juice from it—the messages I took home, with the caveat that they are (obviously) biased by my personal views.
- We have guessed the number of species in the oceans, but we do not know what they are (it is one thing to give a number; another to associate names with each number)
- we do not know the roles of known species. We do not know their life cycles, their diets, where they live, when they are active, what eats them, etc.
- hence, not knowing the species nor what they do, it is not so easy to explain the role of biodiversity in making ecosystems function
- we do not even know how to ascertain if ecosystems function properly, since bacteria mostly explain biogeochemical cycle processes, leaving the rest of biodiversity apparently unnecessary
- we have invested a lot in modelling ecological systems, so as to predict their future behaviour. Apparently these models do not work, and it is not so easy to predict what will happen while dealing with complex and non-linear systems—such as ecological ones. The enforcement of the ecosystem approach to fisheries sciences, for instance, is a clear demonstration that past approaches were not sound.
- there is a great concern about extinctions, but if we are to name extinct marine species then the list is very short. So, we are worried about something that we cannot quantify.
These are just some of the many items that attracted my attention. Another issue, not addressed in detail, was that we know very little about the distribution of marine habitats and that there is no unified way to classify them. So, again, speculation about our impact on marine environments remains just that—speculative. And while we can measure the sources of impact, we do not have sound measures their effect (on, presumably, habitats and species), at least on a global scale.
Despite the large amount of information presented, it is clear, in my opinion, that ignorance is rife and that we have barely scratched the surface of the patterns and processes taking place in the marine domain. The current ways of studying the seas have promised a lot, but in spite of very large investments have failed to deliver. Of course the solution is not to stop investing in marine science but rather to readdress the priorities, and to set up a solid theoretical framework to sustain future studies. If the scientific community sells the exploration of marine biodiversity in terms of counting species, and then the science that does so (taxonomy) is almost extinct, then there is a mismatch between what was promised and what can be done.
Another example of “strange” priorities is the huge amount of work on the impact of limpet grazing on algal mats, while very little is done on the impact of Thaliacea (salps) grazing on phytoplankton populations. The pulses of phytoplankton are the most important phenomena of the biosphere and the energy they produce can be channelled in various directions, whereas intertidal algal mats are probably much less important. The Thaliacea are almost ignored, even though the blooms of these animals can redirect the functioning of large marine ecosystems, sucking up phytoplankton production. As far as I could see, there were no talks on Thaliacea at the meeting.
It was, however, reassuring to hear from various plenary talks that these problems are starting to be perceived by prestigious scientists. I have been preaching these things for a very long time, and mentioning them in my Faculty of 1000 evaluations. Apparently, these ideas are popular among F1000 users, because the papers I review are often in the most-viewed article lists. This is good for my self-esteem, even if I can’t tell if users like my comments or my choices!
However, this is meagre consolation. I would like to see a real change in the way marine sciences (and ecology in general) focus on the problems we might tackle and eventually solve. During coffee breaks (my favourite moments at conferences) I chatted with many people, and I even tried to pose questions that hinted at these issues. Strangely enough, people seemed to agree: this worries me even more, because it should lead to a revolution that is not happening.
Maybe it will: we need more humility, and to restate the flamboyant promises of the past. Personally, I do not see how this would harm the scientific community: it is harmful to make big promises and then be proven wrong. And it is even more harmful to be proven wrong yet continue on the same old path. The best proof that honesty pays is to be found in meteorology. With chaos theory, meteorologists showed that it is intrinsically impossible to predict the weather over the medium- to long- term. This did not lead to the dismissal of meteorology but, instead, led people and decision makers to be more tolerant with its failures, because what it addresses is very complex. Every little improvement in weather forecasting is seen as almost a miracle, but these guys are very aware of the limitations of their science, and have demonstrated that they are not stupid; rather they are studying very difficult things. Of course ecology and evolution are much more difficult! But we continue to pretendi that we can predict the future. Unfortunately, when the future arrives, our failures become apparent!
My explanation for all this is that ecology and evolution are historical disciplines, and we are historians (natural historians). Historians are not asked to predict the future; they are asked to reconstruct the past, identifying the patterns of events and the processes leading to them. They have the mission of understanding why things are the way they are today. This knowledge is conducive to acquiring wisdom about how to handle possible futures, by identifying potential scenarios.
We need more honesty (e.g., the need to recognize the value of taxonomy) and more competence (e.g., we need to know what we are talking about when we speak about species roles, ecosystem functioning and extinctions). My personal prediction is that these changes will not take place so easily, because there is a mighty scientific lobby that does not want to give up its prominence and, on the other hand, the scientific community to replace it does not exist (natural historians are almost extinct).
The times we are living in now are very interesting indeed, even if I do not dare predict the outcome.
Ferdinando Boero is Professor of Zoology at the Department of Biological and
Environmental Sciences and Technologies of the University of Salento, Lecce, Italy. In addition to his professional work, he is also involved with citizen science, having launched a project to gather information on the presence of jellyfish throughout the Mediterranean.
He also named a jellyfish after Frank Zappa.