In 2002, the world’s governments agreed to significantly slow the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010. Time is almost up, and by most accounts they’ve failed. Now that climate change is emerging as one of biodiversity’s greatest threats, scientists are proposing new ways to tackle the crisis. Hannah Hoag reports.
In July 2009, for the fourth year in a row, a swarm of biologists fanned out across the tundra near Churchill, Manitoba, in northern Canada. They plucked fragments of plants and animals — feathers and fur, mayflies and moths — from land, lakes, rivers and ocean. At the lab, the specimens were ground up and identified using short stretches of DNA — a unique barcode for every species. So far, the team — led by Paul Hebert, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Guelph in Canada, who invented DNA barcoding (Proc. R. Soc. B 270, 313–321; 2003) to speed up the process of taxonomy — has identified more than 4,000 species from its northern expeditions, including parasitic wasps that have been observed across North America but were previously overlooked in the Canadian Arctic.
“The first business of conservation is telling species apart,” says Hebert. Before barcoding, biological specimens were identified on the basis of morphology, behaviour and genetics. The technique will offer a “quantum jump” in the rate that species are registered, says Hebert. What once took months can now take a few hours. It also gives biodiversity a boost: barcoding has repeatedly shown that one species is, in fact, three, or ten (Evol. Biol. 7, 121; 2007).