Some of the scientists helping to identify every living species in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park are giving up rights to name their discoveries for an even bigger prize: raising money to ensure the continued survival of the Discover Life in America project.
The All Taxa Biological Inventory started 12 years ago as an attempt to document each of the estimated 60,000 species in the Smokies, a place long considered — and now proven to be — a biological hotspot. To date, 7,100 species not previously known to dwell in the park have been identified. Of those, 910 are completely new species, never before identified.
The cost to name one of Discover Life in America’s newly identified creatures cost buyers $2,500 to $10,000. In return, donors get a print photograph of their named organism, plus a copy of the scientific publication in which the species is first described.
For those donors not wanting to shell out the big bucks, something small — such as a newly discovered mite — often proves the winning ticket. Mites simply don’t have the cachet larger species have — a certain je ne sais quoi, as it were, that the public attaches to butterflies, salamanders and similar lovelies.
The selling-the-naming-rights effort has been under way for three or four years. Discover Life in America has successfully sold just about that many — three or four to date, said Todd Witcher, executive director of the group.
Because of the secrecy surrounding the scientific process, and the length of time it takes for the scientific community to approve a discovery, no information about who has bought what has ever been made public.
There’s another reason for that, too: a bit of potential stigma exists for the scientists involved — not everyone in the scientific community approves of this fairly new, but increasingly utilized, fundraising method. Critics worry that with commercial value being attached to finds, people will “discover” new species solely for financial gains.
When it comes to the naming game, the Discover Life in America’s fundraising effort is frankly small potatoes. An auction to name 10 species of fish netted Conservation International $2 million in 2007. And, in 2005, the Wildlife Conservation Society raised $650,000 in an Internet auction of a Bolivian monkey.
“It is certainly a sign of the times,” said Witcher, adding the Discover Life in America, with an annual budget of $250,000, struggles to stay afloat financially.
The nonprofit doesn’t just cover administrative costs, staff salaries and such. The group actually extends grants to scientists to encourage study of certain taxa in the Smokies. Witcher said the competition is fierce to acquire the services, say, of one of just two scientists in the world with the ability to identify a particularly obscure species.
How many folks have you ever met have expertise in slime molds, for instance? A small grant sometimes helps persuade a scientist with sought-after taxonomy skills to work in the Smokies.
Why does it matter if we know about slime molds? There’s the sexy answer, that the cure for cancer might well lie in an undiscovered species, perhaps here in the Smokies. Less alluring, but also important, is the need for baseline data: you can’t know what’s being lost if you don’t first know what’s there.
One of the many difficulties, as Witcher alluded to, is the relatively small number of scientists with the credentials and the ability to take on the work — that is, of identifying species in the field. This also worries New Discover Life in America board member Laura Mahan, who with her husband, Hal, operates The Compleat Naturalist, a natural history store in Asheville.
A trained biologist, Laura Mahan has an intense interest in science education. She said that’s one of the most fantastic parts of Discover Life in America — the pairing of nonscientists with scientists to actually conduct real science together.
And, hopefully, this will help lead to more interest among people in learning how to identify various species.
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