11/17/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

There Aren't Enough Spidermen

A short while ago, we mailed 100 dead spiders to Belgium. We didn't just do it for kicks, although it was funny to see the FedEx guy's reaction when he asked about the contents of the package. We did it because we needed to know, for a study we're conducting, what type of spiders these were.

Unfortunately, we had no way of figuring this out for ourselves. Here's why: spiders are not birds. That's a crucial distinction. The bird-watchers of the world may be nerds, but they have produced such excellent illustrated field guides that you can go anywhere in the world and identify any bird from 50 yards away. The spider-watchers of the world have not been so on-the-ball. Which means that if you should go anywhere in the world and want to identify a spider, you will probably have to capture it, kill it, and send it halfway around the world to somebody who has spent a lifetime mastering the nuances of spider vaginas (seriously) and other distinguishing features.

And even if you do all those things, your spider-fancying friend might still send you a note along the following lines: "I have no [expletive] idea what that thing is." This is essentially what happened to us. Europe's best spider experts were flummoxed. We would get an email every couple of weeks, paragraphs of impenetrable spiderdork-speak that boiled down to "I dunno." For example, from a guy in London: "The only comment I would make is that the epigyne looks a little like that of Hypsosinga, although the habitus is, of course, quite different."

Of course. And that brings us to the subject of this post, which is that we humans don't know squat about the majority of life on Earth. Sure, most of us learn at a young age the difference between tigers and pigeons (tigers have stripes). But how many of us go on to learn the difference between, say, the tapeworms Taenia saginata and Taenia solium? Precious few. There is nothing sexy--scientifically or otherwise--about naming tapeworms. (One of us learned this lesson the hard way during a literally very messy breakup some years back. Working in the tropics is not for everybody.)

Anyway, there are about 1.75 million species with actual names, which means that there are anywhere between two and twenty million anonymous ones. The process of assigning names to species is laborious, involving detailed comparative studies of body parts, which are then written up in obscure scientific journals. And when you combine the time it takes to name a species with the relatively small number of people in the species-naming business, what you get is a huge pile of species sitting in museums, waiting to be named. When we naively asked whether we might be able to describe our new species of spider (hoping we might be able to name it after ourselves or something similarly modest), the taxonomy guys mocked us. Like, "Sure, boss. Your specimen is #1359 on the list. We'll work overtime and get right to it."

So, we've got a serious problem in biodiversity land. We need to know the names of species so that we can learn about them and organize that knowledge, figure out whether they have properties that might make us healthier, wealthier, or wiser, determine whether they're endangered and how to protect them, etc. But at the same time, not many of us are really interested in being the ones to do that. So many species remain to be named that at the current rate it will take, according to our conservative calculations, a gazillion years to finish the job.

What to do, then? The genomic revolution (deciphering the genetic code of species) will help. We are now able to generate and store huge amounts of genetic data, which, although not (yet) a sufficient basis for describing new species, is helpful supporting evidence. But we also need a big investment, whether public or private, in supporting taxonomy and the basic natural history of organisms. Personally, we find it ironic--even tragic--that we are spending more than $2 billion of US taxpayer money to send another rover to Mars next year, when so much of our own planet remains unexplored and unknown.

A man we admire, biologist Dan Janzen, has a big idea. He dreams of a gene-sequencing gadget that you hold in your hand and that you can use to identify bits of leaf, worm, or frog that you might come across in your neighborhood park or rainforest. To get this gadget working, he says, requires three things: first, a technological effort to miniaturize DNA sequencing instruments; second, a scientific effort to create a massive online library of partial DNA sequences and associated species names and information; and third, a financial mechanism whereby each use of the gadget generates a small amount of revenue to fund ongoing the process of naming and categorizing species.

It might sound like science fiction, but stranger things have come to pass.