The Phylomon project: Biodiversity or Megafawning?

Jan 15 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

In a post last night, the venerable Dr. Isis brought the Phylomon project to the attention of her readers. As an individual interested in biodiversity, I thought I would check it out. In principal I like the idea and the creators described it as such:

“What is this?” you ask? Well, it's an online initiative aimed at creating a Pokemon card type resource but with real creatures on display in full “character design” wonder. Not only that - but we plan to have the scientific community weigh in to determine the content on such cards (note that the cards above are only a mock-up of what that content might be), as well as folks who love gaming to try and design interesting ways to use the cards. Then to top it all off, members of the teacher community will participate to see whether these cards have educational merit. Best of all, the hope is that this will all occur in a non-commercial-open-access-open-source-because-basically-this-is-good-for-you-your-children-and-your-planet sort of way.

But, besides just bringing attention to the project, I would like to encourage readers with some artistic talent* and familiarity with non-animal creatures to get involved. My issue with 99.5% of "biodiversity" projects is that they are anything but. Most are exclusively devoted to animals, or if they really get crazy, metazoans (including insects and squishy creatures mostly in the sea). There may be some value in showing people all the charismatic megafauna that Must Be Saved, but it does not serve the greater purpose of introducing people to biodiversity in the real sense. The Discovery Channelization of nature has value, but it's kinda like reading People magazine to get all your news.


Figure 1. A slightly dated classification of eukaryotic biodiversity. Animals are bit players in the grand scheme. It's a big world out there folks, if you really want to understand biodiversity look up a few of the subgroups on this tree.

I bring this up because people associate the need to conserve biodiversity with warming polar bears or Madagascar lemures with no trees to climb, but the reality is that biodiversity is lost under your very nose no matter where you live - it just happens without much fanfare. No one cares when runoff from a golf course obliterates the diatom community in a local pond or a fish farm wipes out a coastal community of organisms. As long as there are no turtles to go belly up, we're good.

So artistic readers, find an unusual bug to add to the phylomon project. Draw a dinnoflagellate, ciliate, apicomplexan or trypanosome. If it's for the gaming community (which they suggest is a target audience), then what could be nastier than the dinoflagellate saxitoxin, a neurotoxin 100000x more potent than cocaine? Apicomplexans cause malaria and toxoplasmosis, just to name a few diseases they are responsible for. Trypanosomes are responsible for African Sleeping Sickness and Chagas disease, and ciliates are voracious predators and parasites. Do an image search for any of them and you'll be shocked at the diversity in form and function.

The unicells of the world control where and how multicellular organisms live. Maybe more people should be aware that they are out there.

*My lack of artistic ability is so great that I make others around me less artistic. My daughter won't even acknowledge the likeness of Elmo when I try and draw him for her, and he's just a couple of circles and a mouth.

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