Two things that are simultaneously tedious and exciting: The first is counting a large sum of your own money. The second is science. I’m in the lab sorting through a tray full of live invertebrates—the aforementioned “big” stuff that came off the ARMS recovered yesterday. Big is all relative, though. “How does it feel to hold a thousand species in your hands?” Leray had asked as he passed the tray to me. I realized then that I was one of only a few human beings to have held that many species at once. No pressure, though.
cowrie (Cypraea poraria)
Now I’m three hours into picking through the sample, and a thousand, it turns out, might have been lowball. Just when I think I’ve trapped the last minuscule snail between my tweezers, I find something else. What looks like a grain of sand starts crawling, or a transparent shrimp the size of a dust mote becomes visible. My job is to sort the creatures into plastic cups according to their morphology—that is, what they look like. A cup for squat lobsters, a cup for scallops, a cup for cone snails. I do my best, but I’ve undoubtedly lumped disparate species together. Even so, there are already two hundred cups on the table and counting. It’s like staring at a fractal image—the more you look, the more you see; increase the magnification, and a new level of complexity opens up.
Finding physical specimens is a necessary complement to the DNA barcoding. Genetic information doesn’t tell you much, says Meyer, only what something roughly is (crab, snail, urchin) and that it’s there. Nothing else. “You don’t know if it’s a juvenile or adult, what it’s eating, what’s eating it.” Meyer, when trying to explain Biocode to the uninitiated, often resorts to car metaphors. “We know the license plates but we don’t see the cars. With barcoding we’ve found thousands of new plates.” To fill in the gaps, he says, “we need to find the cars.”
Easier said than done. Gathering animals requires sampling—collecting buckets of sand and coral rubble, dragging nets, diving to the deep reefs, placing ARMS in shark-infested waters. Meyer calls these as-yet-unseen cars “dark taxa,” akin to cosmic “dark matter”: We know almost nothing about dark taxa except that they exist. Yet just as this mysterious dark matter comprises most of the physical stuff of the universe, there are more unknown than there are known species. Our understanding of biodiversity, then, is not merely incomplete; it’s adolescent.
“These guys?” says Meyer, picking up one of the cups containing fifty or so hermit crabs not much larger than a period on the page you’re now reading. “Most of these are new.”
“New? All these little buggers I’m pulling out?”
“We’re up to seventeen new hermit crabs in the project. They’re the most common things in our devices, yet only one is described. Unregistered cars!” he shrugs. “Lots of unregistered cars out there.”