ROM plans a biodiversityextravaganza

Among all the problemsfacing us, if I had to pick the mostthreatening, I’dpick the loss of biodiversity. That’sbecausebiodiversityiswhatultimately supports life as we know it.
Everything alive needs a support system — in otherwords, an ecosystem. And when conditions are changing at the rate they are now, ecosystemsrequireresilience in order to avoidcrashing. Resilience, in turn, depends on biodiversity.


Think of itthisway: In nature, every living thing has a purpose, so if even one organismiseliminated, nature has to compensate. The more it has to compensate, the lessresilientitbecomes.


It compares to youlosing the tip of a finger. The tip willnevergrow back, and youwilllearn how to functionquitewellwithoutit. But keepchopping off bits and pieces, untilyoulose a hand, and then the thumb and forefinger of the other hand, and you’llbegin to have difficultyfunctioning.


In nature, youcan point to anynumber of developmentsthat are forcing change, in otherwordstesting the resilience of ecosystems, at the same time as they are choppingaway at biodiversity. For starters, think of the multiple consequences of ozone depletion, population growth, over-consumption, the build-up of greenhousegases, and emissions of organochlorines.


The cumulative impact isbeyondourability to track. And we have no idea how, or when, crash time will arrive. In short, we have an enormousneed to know more about biodiversity and how to protectit.


So the news that the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) isgoing to strengthenits focus on biodiversityis an exciting and gladsomething.


The strengthened focus is part of a reorganization of the museumproposed by Lindsay Sharp, the ROM’s new director. It wouldreduce six existingdepartments to four, one of whichwouldbe the Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Biology.


The centre would « research and communicate the fundamental issues (concerning) the incrediblediversity of…biological life on earth, from the beginnings…to the presentday.


The ROM is in a tremendouslystrong position to deal withthisbecauseitis one of the few museums in the world that has, under one roof, a wide range of expertise in bothnatural sciences and humancultures. And thatenablesit to bring a muchneeded, multidisciplinaryapproach to the study of biodiversity.


In addition, most of the ROM’sresearch in biologyisfocused on evolution — thatis, trying to understand how thingsgot to wherethey are. « The hopeis,’’ explained Chris Darling, curator of entomology (the study of insects), « that by understandingevolutionarypaths, we’llbe able to predictwhichspecies are vulnerable to extinction.’’


To find out how the museummightcommunicateits insights to the public, I spokewiththreecurators — Darling, Richard Winterbottom, curator of ichthyology (the study of fish), and Robert Murphy, curator of herpetology (the study of reptiles and amphibians).


To a persontheyspoke of theirownsense of wonder as they came to understand the intricate patterns of nature. « There’s a majesty to how things fit,’’ said Murphy.


To unveilthatmajesty for othersiswhattheysee as the challenge for the museum. How to meetthat challenge iswhat the staff willbedebating over the nextmanymonths — and everyone has an idea.


Winterbottom, for instance, wouldlike to put museumvisitors, « under water on a coralreef. Not in real water. In a surrounderama, a kind of virtual reality,’’ where, as theywalkedthrough the display, theywould move from the deepsea, to the reef, to the lagoonbeyond, and emergeamong the mangroves on the shoreline. If theytouchedanything, a computer screenwould light up with information.


It’s a wonderfulidea, and I’m sure there are many more just as intriguing. But theycouldbecostly. Winterbottomestimatesthathissurrounderamawouldcost $1.5 million to build. On the other hand, I’m sure most of us have a few dollars wecoulddonate. I know I do.

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