A name - to every creature

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The Independent Online
ADAM gave names to all cattle, you may recall, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field, but this week scientists will meet to discuss naming the several million species he never got around to.

Some 30 million life-forms are thought to exist in developing countries, of which at least 85 per cent have not been identified. They include the multitudes of mites, moulds, mushrooms, insects and other small organisms: there are thought to be, for example, 2.5 million worms in need of names.

This morning, 350 biologists from all over the world will assemble at the University of Wales in Cardiff for the BioNET International Global Workshop, to discuss how to end this anonymity.

"Everything that is furry, feathery or flowering we largely know about," said Professor Tecwyn Jones, one of the conference organisers. "What we don't know about are the uglies as I call them, the insects and the fungi, without which the soil could not function."

Professor Jones, of the International Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences, said: "There is a scientific crisis in the developing world because they cannot identify all the organisms that governments have pledged they are going to sustain.

"At the Rio Conference in 1992 they all put their hands up and said we are going to manage the environment, but you cannot do that until you know the nature of what you are going to manage."

He added: "The crisis has arisen because, for generations past, all the naming and classification has been done by the great institutions of the developed world like the British Museum and the Smithsonian in Washington. But with the Rio Conference, demand has multiplied and we need to find a way of speeding up the process."

One of the main tasks of the week will be to look at ways of recruiting and training taxonomists, the people who will track down names for millions of anonymous species. They will use a range of techniques including smelling them, listening for the sounds they make, and DNA testing.

Professor Michael Claridge of University College, Cardiff, said: "We need to speed up this process of identification and naming because so much is being destroyed these days."

Dr Jeremy Holloway, from the Natural History Museum in London, has identified several hundred different kinds of moths in the Far East. "You can't name them after yourself; other people have to do it," he said. "I suppose I have had about 10 named after me. The latest I named was the Biston inovei which had probably been going about the forests of Borneo for more than a million years before I went out there with a bright light and a couple got sucked in.

"Naming is very important. We interfere so much with habitats that we must understand these organisms and how we can ensure their survival."