The explorer's thrill: finding new species

Zoologist John Fitzpatrick knew he had ``a find'' the minute he laid eyes on the brown wren with the white line across its wings in northern Peru. ``There are only two other members of that group and neither of them have wing bars,'' he explains. He has since christened his newly discovered species: the bar-winged wood wren.

Botanist Michael Dillon says he has spotted new species of flowering plants in Peru just as quickly. ``I'll be driving around the corner of a mountain road and I'll go, `Wow -- that's new.' I know before I stop the car.''

Sometimes these modern-day explorers know instantly when they have a new species. But both scientists admit it's rarely that easy.

Confirming discovery of an unrecorded species sometimes requires a painstaking check with a number of specialists and several museum or university collections. The process can take a decade or two.

Smaller, more primitive plants such as lichens may have to be chemically tested or dissected before a scientist knows for sure. For instance, John Engel, who studies moss and lichen, has often had to cut up pieces of liverwort (his mossy specialty), and examine them under one or more microscopes. It may only be the differing internal structure, which makes for a ``new'' species, he explains.

Drs. Engel, Fitzpatrick, and Dillon are researchers at Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History. Each is an explorer -- not mapping out uncharted terrain, but discovering new species and fresh data about existing plants and animals.

The three scientists spend most of their working hours gathering specimens, then analyzing and arranging them in museum research collections. Today, museums are more apt to have large specialized collections than universities are, says Field Museum vice-president Harold Voris.

Here on the third floor of the Field are row upon row of gray cabinets containing nearly 2 million plant specimens.

``Basically, people have no idea what we do here -- my relatives don't know even after I tell them repeatedly,'' says an amused Dr. Engel, who sits in his office surrounded by stacks of specially designed tan shoeboxes.

The boxes are full of packets of liverwort specimens collected on field trips to such temperate zone areas as Tasmania and southern Chile. Engel estimates he has already discovered as many as 30 previously undescribed species and is sure the boxes will yield more.

Much has been written about the more than 800 species now on the endangered and threatened species list. But comparatively little attention is given the new varieties of flora and fauna constantly being discovered.

There may be as many as 10,000 more species of flowering plants -- beyond the 250,000 known species -- just waiting to be discovered in the neo-tropics of Latin and South America, suggests Alwyn Gentry, a research botanist with the Missouri Botanical Garden.

Perhaps a few hundred of these ``new'' flowering plants and about the same number of fungi (ranging from mushrooms to yeast) are added to new species lists each year, estimates James Rodman, program director of the National Science Foundation's biology program.

But it is the insects, he says, that clearly take the numerical prize. ``Literally thousands of new species are discovered every year,'' Dr. Rodman says.

Yet, the Field Museum scientists, whose work is largely supported by private foundations and government research grants, stress that finding ``new'' species is always incidental to their main job of collecting and studying samples of known species.

``It's the dessert,'' says Dr. Fitzpatrick, who is chairman of Field's Department of Zoology and its division of birds. He says he has found six new bird species on his various field treks.

Peru remains one of the most fertile areas for modern-day explorers. Most of the world's new bird species named since World War II have been found there. And Dr. Dillon says probably as many new plant species come out of that country as anyplace else in the world.

The Field Museum is now three-quarters finished with a project begun in 1922 to collect and describe Peruvian plants. ``We have the best Peruvian collection anywhere in the world -- including Peru,'' Dillon says.

Dillon, whose specialty is the compositae family or sunflower, estimates he has found 20-to-30 new species in the course of his work. One of the most fruitful of these occurred two years ago when the warm ocean currents of El Nio triggered heavy rains along Peru's normally dry desert coast.

Seeds that had lain dormant four to six decades began to sprout and blossom. Since some of the plants flowered for only a few weeks and he had 1,500 miles to cover, he would often drive his pickup truck all night to get to the next camp.

Dillon brought back 10,000 samples of 700 plants, enough to share with other specialists. ``We trade plants just as some people trade stamps,'' he explains.

Whoever first publishes a description of a new species and gives it a name has the closest thing to a patent on the discovery. But occasionally another specialist publishes first or challenges a finding.

Does society stand to gain much by the discovery of these new species?

Some scientists studying genetic strains and chemical properties of new plant species say discoveries can lead to the development of useful products and crop varieties. But Dr. Gentry says this area of investigation among tropical species has barely begun. ``We've done essentially nothing,'' he says.

So it is the advancement of knowledge that remains the strongest current argument for discovering more species. It's like filling out the chemical table of elements, Rodman says. Discovering the parts is essential to understanding the whole and the relationship of various species to each other.

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