Our tiny dive boat bobs on the crystal blue Flores Sea, about a mile from the primitive Indonesian villages along the shore. I tighten my fins, swig a few test gulps of air through my scuba gear and am about to roll in. Suddenly, a black beast the size of a minivan explodes out of the water. The enormous splash rocks the boat. “Manta ray,” our divemaster says. “They’re showing off. Like puppies. Okay. Now you, jump in.”Underwater, no one can see you sweat. I shrug, roll into the water and descend through schools of neon and Technicolor reef fish into the coral jungle. The weird growths, the psychedelic formations-giant corals, some like moose antlers, some flaming red with spikes, some like brains-make for a surreal scene. It’s like swimming into a Dal painting.
I float over to a couple of big groupers. They’re the size of large dogs. As I watch, three or four miniature, delicate “cleaner” shrimp hop fearlessly into the mouth and gills of the first fish, who waits politely for his cleaning. It’s a little like a car wash. Then there’s the boxer crab, whose front claws appear clad in big white boxing gloves-which turn out to be two fluffy white sea anemones. The crab carries these poisonous creatures constantly, jabbing them at prey like an aquatic Muhammad Ali.
Even the most seasoned divers are overwhelmed by the parade of bizarre life forms that dwell in the reefs. In the face of such dazzling beauty, it is shattering to realize that the world’s coral paradises are perishing at an alarming rate. Almost 100,000 square kilometers of reefs have died; experts estimate that within a few decades, 60 percent of the reefs will be dead. No doubt, extraordinary species are being extinguished even before they’ve been discovered. It made me wonder: who’s keeping tabs on this?
Many of the animals I saw were easy to find later in the reef guidebooks. But some I couldn’t find at all. How would I know if I had found a new species? And what would I do if I had? Is there an institute in Sweden to call to have such a thing verified? Do they need a DNA sample, or a whole specimen or what? Professional biologists would know what to do-but shouldn’t there be some way to tap the energies of countless amateurs? After all, the search to comprehend the natural order didn’t begin or end with Carolus Linnaeus, the 18th-century Swedish botanist who devised the modern taxonomic system of identifying life forms; weekend naturalists have much to add to communal knowledge.
Naturally, the Internet is where much of this is happening. The National Biological Information Infrastructure (www.nbii.gov), for example, knits together the biological databases of hundreds of companies, universities and government agencies. At the grass-roots level, the Tree of Life at the University of Arizona (phylogeny.arizona.edu/tree/phylogeny.html) exemplifies the amateur and academic urge to classify. It’s a community-authored phylogeny of earth’s life forms. So if you did find a strange fish, you could probably uncover an avenue online for reporting it.
But an even more remarkable effort is just beginning. Amid this taxonomic flurry, something quite fundamental is strikingly missing: the genes. That’s where the new All Species Foundation comes in. Founded last year, the foundation aims to record all of the earth’s genetic information. Its manifesto (www.all-species.org) begins, “If we discovered life on another planet, the first thing we’d do is conduct a systematic inventory of those life forms. This is something we have never done on our home planet.” The organization’s goal: “Within the span of our own generation, record and genetically sample every living species on earth.” In other words, build a comprehensive DNA zoo. Accomplishing this will require massive philanthropic input, new biotech tools and the observational powers of a vast population of weekend naturalists.