Cryptic Biodiversity


When then-Interior Secretary Stewart L. Udall penned the first endangered species list in 1967, it included 77 species of mammals, fish, birds, reptiles, and amphibians. Today, there are thousands. Propelled by modern technology, that number may soon rise even more rapidly.

Berkeley biology professor David Wake published a paper in August announcing four new salamander species living in heavily populated areas in California. Instead of simply looking for visual clues, Wake and his colleagues sample salamanders' protein diversity and DNA. By doing so, they can differentiate between species that look almost identical but are in fact as genetically distinct as cows and horses. Such hidden differences are known as "cryptic biodiversity."

Due to these new techniques, the number of known salamander species is increasing by about 2 percent per year. "In 1954 a thorough doctoral dissertation at Berkeley concluded that there was one species of Slender Salamander, genus Batrachoseps, in the state," says Wake. "There are now 15." Meanwhile, salamander populations worldwide are in decline, for reasons that are hotly debated by the distressed biologists who study them.

Cryptic biodiversity isn't limited to amphibians. By examining DNA, scientists have discovered new species of birds, reptiles, whales, and plants. Says Wake, "What all this means is that we must worry a great deal more about endangered species issues."

But with new species seemingly ready to turn up in every back yard in America, popular support may be harder to sustain. "This could put more and more pressure on the Endangered Species Act," says Richard Stroup, a senior associate at the Montana-based Political Economy Research Center, a free-market environmentalist think tank. "At some point the public is going to get some dim realization that species don't matter much by themselves. What really matters is…what kind of change will be wrought if a particular population or species disappears. What we should care about is filling niches."