Saturday, 24 December 2016

A human conceit?

Human beings are blessed with intellect and an ability for critical thinking. It enables us to identify almost everything that we share the Earth with, from soil types, component elements, the fauna and the flora. We also attach unique names to each and every 'thing' that comes along. Everything. And here lies the conceit of doing so - we really do believe that we can differentiate between all the species.

Take birds. All 10,000-ish species. As the Victorians worked their way through the world, collecting and naming, they lay the foundation for the modern taxonomists. The 20th century natural historian then continued to add to this knowledge, with most of the world's species catalogued and checklists became fully formed. There was the odd new species discovered, but this was mostly put down to the exploring of remote corners of the world. Then the taxonomists took over...

Most of what we come across can be identified. Pictures and illustrations can still do it for us. But DNA analysis has thrown up an inconvenient truth to field ornithologists - that there are many more species out there, and quite a lot of them are very similar indeed. Some so similar that to be sure of what the bird before us is, we need the help of a laboratory and a piece of the bird in question.

Field work has come on, as has the clarity and detail possible with digital cameras. The Dungeness Empidonax flycatcher of September 2015 was more or less nailed without the need for laboratory analysis, but it was needed for a firm identification. But then something comes along that throws self-doubt over us all, like the Stonechat that turned up at Dungeness in early November (just after I had left for home). It was very grey. The initial finder, Owen Leyshon, called it as a Siberian. Observers gathered and a few doubts were raised. By the day's end it was widely considered to be just an aberrant Common Stonecat. It stayed for a month. And the story might have ended there, had someone not had the foresight to collect a faeces sample...

The results of the sample has just been announced. The bird was, indeed, a rare Stonechat - a Stejneger's no less. It also looked nothing like the few British Stejneger's that have so far been DNA'd. There are plenty of highly experienced birder's who saw the Dungeness Stonechat and were wrong-footed by it. And no wonder.

What does this episode tell us? That we have a lot still to learn? Yes. That maybe we, as a species, are exhibiting a conceit in trying to neatly compartmentalise everything on earth into neat little packages, consigned to the 'fully understood' file? Maybe.

The world is a more complex arena than we give it credit for - if we are still struggling with the 10,000 or so species of bird, and are realising that, even in heavily studied Europe, we have 'new' species under our noses (Western and Eastern Bonelli's Warblers, the Subalpine complex, Iberian Chiffchaff to name but a few), then what chance do with have with a Stonechat from the east where their taxonomy is now understood to be a complicated thing?

That we still have not 'mastered' an aspect of our obsession with ornithology is something to be pleased about. It opens up new areas of study. It puts us in our place. It is humbling. It makes us question - and that is exactly what got us to this point in the first place.

Merry Christmas!

5 comments:

  1. Human beings are blessed with intellect and an ability for critical thinking. It enables us to identify almost everything that we share the Earth with, from soil types, component elements, the fauna and the flora.

    That's conceit Steve, go no further.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. If I had Rick it would have saved me a lot of further bother...

      Delete
  2. Great post Steve - obviously you are aware that it is approaching that time of year again...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. IT wouldn't be the new year without The Ramblers...

      Delete