Confessions of a would-be ATBI'ist

CITATION: Schueler, Fred. 2003. FORUM: Confessions of a would-be ATBI'ist. Biodiversity 4(2):

Confessions of a would-be ATBI'ist

Fred Schueler's Ph.D. thesis dealt with geographic variation in the Northern Leopard Frog, Rana pipiens across Canada and the northern USA. He and his wife, natural history author/artist Aleta Karstad have lived in Bishops Mills, in the Kemptville Creek drainage basin of Eastern Ontario, since 1978. They're now calling themselves the Bishops Mills Natural History Centre. Their activities, poetry, and utopian views are expounded at

Maybe it's my New England Puritan and Methodist ancestry, or maybe it's just irritation at the widespread assumption that the values of anthropocentric commercialism are universally affirmed, but I'm frequently accused of acting as if utopian ideals are widely held. Such assumptions bring one repeatedly up against the fact that popularly professed ideas are actually widely believed. Disproportionate interest in big, conspicuous, and commercially exploited organisms is a real phenomenon -- not an accidental oversight -- in the minds of most people. Just as most of them really do think that economic growth is 'good,' they also really think birds are more 'interesting' than Unionid mussels. This means that there's no naturally widespread public enthusiasm for grassroots ATBI's (All Taxa Biodiversity Inventories), and henceforth great need for intensive public education -- carefully thought out strategies for engendering biophilia, the love of all living things.

The National Museum of Canada was founded as a 'biological survey,' which was the nineteenth century name for an ATBI. Since 1973, as freelance collectors for the national museum, Aleta and I have travelled throughout Canada, surveying Amphibians & Reptiles, Crayfish, Gastropods, Unionid Mussels, and invasive plants. Following the lead of Don McAllister (former editor and founder of Biodiversity), we always saw museum work as politically and philosophically radical, both because museum workers live in the deep past and labour for the benefit of the deep future, and because their reverence for the equal value of every twig of the phylogenetic shrub inspires a radically egalitarian conservation ethic. At the same time, the necessity of killing the organisms they love as specimens roots them in the real world, and the statistical and epistemological demands of scientific study keep them from sinking into sentimentality.

In 1993, we began to call ourselves the Biological Checklist of the Kemptville Creek Drainage Basin (BCKCDB). We hoped to counter the anthropocentric bias of local culture with an institution focused on the non-human inhabitants of our local area, in the form of an ATBI. The BCKCDB database was to contain records of all organisms in the drainage basin, from information in naturalists' field notes and the scientific literature to data computerized by governments, museums, & other inventory-compilers. We hoped to bring back to the local community the knowledge that was centralized in these specialized archives, and then go forth and add to the list.

An ATBI is one of those grand ideals that seems self-evident to those who know enough about enough taxa to envision one, but the debut of the BCKCDB did not produce the widespread screams of enthusiastic endorsement and assistance we had anticipated. Some people didn't understand how we could be a checklist, while others classified us as commercial consultants rather than a public institution. Problems of data ownership and accessibility reduced the import of existing data to a trickle, and without help we were barely able to keep up with entry of our own observations into the database. We've known other naturalists who have tried to start, or be, regional ATBI's, and have found that even starting up was more than individual enthusiasm could sustain.

In 1997 we suggested the founding of the Eastern Ontario Biodiversity Museum (EOBM), to save the orphaned natural history collections of Carleton University from abandonment and disarray and to provide a model regional natural history museum. We wanted to make explicit the intellectual connections between scientific knowledge of natural history and the specimens on which it is based, by teaching phyletic history, the methods of phylogenetic systematics, history and methods of taxonomy & nomenclature, and the role of authentic specimens and data in all these endeavours. We wrote into the founding documents of the EOBM the principles of museum life we had observed and deduced over the past three decades, but we seriously underestimated how poorly these ideals would be understood.

The biodiversity motto assumes equal interest in all taxa, but this isn't strongly present in popular culture. What kind of utopian ideal should we strive for if ATBI's are to thrive? I think that we have to anticipate governments that regard themselves, at least largely, as the collective will of human people interacting with other species, rather than as simply mediators in struggles among groups of people, as they have in the past.

We can anticipate that localized ATBI's will be replaced by well-supported and pervasive natural history databases - a sort of global internet BCKCDB. Like a combination of National Library, Auditor General, and Bureau of the Census, these databases would summarize all natural history observations and specimens. Within each political jurisdiction, their handlers would disperse data, identify gaps in knowledge of taxa, and direct support to individuals and institutions able to fill the gaps. Ignorance of any taxon in any area must elicit shame rather than indifference. We must look forward to a time when a lack of records of fugus gnats from the highlands of Hastings County is as much of a threat to public safety as a highway bridge that's in danger of collapsing.

Governments only support study of a taxon, or acknowledge its importance in land-use planning, after naturalists have made a fuss over it for a decade or more: at first 'game' Vertebrates (1910's), then, after a time-out for world wars and depression, non-game Birds (1960's), Plants (1970's), herps (1980's), and recently Butterflies, Odonata, and certain Molluscs. These groups enter public awareness when substantial numbers of naturalists have recognized, studied, and written about their individual species. Naturalists and museums should actively facilitate this process, through synoptic displays of species, by teaching identification, and publicizing the results of studies of the unfamiliar taxa. Conservation Data Centres, like Ontario's Natural Heritage Information Centre, should be encouraged to increase their taxonomic coverage. Naturalists groups, field stations, and any biological enterprise with a geographic territory, should maintain all-taxon lists for their territories, and add to these lists by concerted study and bio-blitzes (one-day ATBI's).

Low-cost internet tools are emerging to facilitate the exchange of data, but the challenge is the same as it has always been: for every naturalist to recognize as many species as he or she can, and for institutions and governments to support as many specialists in as many taxa as possible.


skip to top - back to publications page - Equilibrium Essays

COMMENTS: This autobiographical essay was cobbled together from snippets of exisiting documents at the suggestion of Stephen Aitken, Managing Editor of Biodiversity. It accompanied an article on the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory (ATBI) of the Area de Conservacion Guanacaste (ACG) in northwestern Costa Rica by Daniel H. Janzen. Tropical Conservancy, the publisher of Biodiversity, is a charitable scientific organisation based in Ottawa, Canada. The journal is distributed to over 180 countries and is indexed by Biosis, Cambridge Scientific Abstracts, Environment Abstracts, and Zoological Record. F.W.Schueler - March 2003.