11 August 2009

What's in a name of a wild thing?

We are so disconnected from the living world that we can live in the midst of a mass extinction, of the rapid invasion everywhere of new and noxious species, entirely unaware that anything is happening.

Happily, changing all this turns out to be easy.

Just find an organism, any organism, small, large, gaudy, subtle — anywhere, and they are everywhere — and get a sense of it, its shape, color, size, feel, smell, sound.

Then find a name for it. Learn science’s name, one of countless folk names, or make up your own.

To do so is to change everything, including yourself. Because once you start noticing organisms, once you have a name for particular beasts, birds and flowers, you can’t help seeing life and the order in it, just where it has always been, all around you.

Carol Kaesuk Yoon shares this conclusion and other thoughts in "Reviving the Lost Art of Naming the World" in The New York Times 10 Aug 09. Full article also on the wildsingapore news blog.

The art and science of naming things is practiced by taxonomists. And much of their work is held in natural history museums.

Olivia Judson shared interesting thoughts on the old and new roles of natural history museums in Dawn at the Museum on The New York Times Blogs on 6 Aug 09;
Natural history museums are still hugely important stores of information about biodiversity, both now and in the remote past. But they have also become something much more.

It’s all those dusty specimens. The ability to extract DNA from dead creatures means that the skins and skeletons of animals that were alive 50, 100, 200 years ago can provide an invaluable source of knowledge about recent genetic changes.

The collections also span an interesting and important period in global history: the past century, during which we humans have affected other beings on the planet as never before. Human population growth, the invention of antibiotics and pesticides, the clearing of forests, hunting and fishing — all these and more have had an impact on the genetics of countless species. By using museum specimens to look back in time, we can potentially assess that impact in detail.
Where is Singapore's own natural history museum?

The Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research (RMBR) is our natural history museum. The RMBR has a small public gallery with Real Specimens, with Real Names, by Real Taxonomists.
Here's an account of one of my visits to the gallery with some volunteers.

The work of taxonomists at RMBR is relentless; there is too much to do and never enough people, time or money.

Recently I had the privilege of helping in a small way during the visit by Dr Daphne Fautin to study our sea anemones. In the process, I learnt that there is a LOT of work that goes into finding out the name of a seemingly simple animal as an anemone. So behind every name on a specimen is a huge amount of expertise, dedication and care.

Do visit the RMBR online to find out more about their work and how you can visit and learn the Names of our very own wild things. And about the important work that goes on at the Museum.

1 comment:

  1. I like the last sentence in the article: "Because once you start noticing organisms, once you have a name for particular beasts, birds and flowers, you can't help seeing life and the order in it, just where it has always been, all around you." How true! - Ley Kun

    ReplyDelete

LinkWithin

Related Posts with Thumbnails