THE CLASSIFICATION OF SPECIES AND HOW IT RELATES TO TODAY'S ISSUES:
It's taught in grade-school now...the classifications of plants and animals into their specific genomes. But as few as three hundred years ago, information clarifying the relationship between lesser and greater plants, between lower and higher animals, was confusing.
Enter, Carl Linnaeus. Born in Sweden in 1707, this inquisitive young boy had a deep affinity for plants that superseded both his parent's desire that he become a member of the Priesthood and his own ambitions of becoming a doctor. In an attempt to understand the plant world more fully, he devised a system of categorizing them. Over the centuries, this method has been revised and now includes the animal kingdom, as well. It is known as taxonomy.
Today, every plant and animal, (past, present, or as-yet undiscovered), is carefully analyzed according to its attributes. It must pass seven tests in order to become a member of its specific "kingdom" ...the highest and most general term which allocates it, for example, into the "animal kingdom" or "plant kingdom." But even those general divisions are split up to indicate whether this is a carnivorous animal, or a plant-eating animal, an upright plant or a fungal-type plant. Indeed, the manners in which plants and animals are indexed often face revision in today's world, due to the nature of modern technology. With our new-found ability to check "DNA" patterning, we are discovering that many members of the plant and animal kingdom were "mislabeled."
But, this is "all good," isn't it? We want to understand the world we live in, mostly because we like order. For a moment, let's examine the "system" we have in place:
We have five main kingdoms, divided between plants and animals:
BACTERIA PROTISTA FUNGI PLANTS ANIMALS
(obvious) (plankton) (molds) (photosynthesis) (yep, you and me)
But, what do you have to be LIKE to enter a "kingdom?"
To be a member of the Bacteria (Monera) family, you
have to have a prokaryotic cell type, (meaning a cell
with no membrane (covering) around it). Your cell
structure has to be "unicellular" (meaning all it
needs to survive is that single cell). You have to eat, but
WHAT you eat revolves around the chemicals nearby. You
absorb those. And, sometimes you absorb light, the way
a plant would, and actually have photosynthetic ability.
WOW so, I'll bet it was confusing for early scientists to decide whether
certain bacteria fell into the bacteria or plant kingdom, right?
Not really! Members of the plant kingdom ALWAYS
gain food by means of photosynthesis, but they are also
Divisions among the animal kingdoms have similar "tell-tale" signs concerning their classification. All animals, (including insects) have a skeleton. However, when the skeletal structure is on the OUTSIDE of an animal, it is immediately grouped with the insect "phyla." What is a Phyla? It is the next level BENEATH the "Kingdom" grouping.
So, you know you are an animal...but did you know there are 38 different groups of "Phyla" you could end up in? Probably not. What do they need to know about you to designate you as a "homo sapien?" (Human).
First, as mentioned, they want to know whether your skeleton is on the inside or outside of your body. Second, they want to know if you were formed from an embryo or an egg? Third, how many appendages do you have? Two? Four? Do you breath oxygen from air or from water? Once they have answered all these questions and more, they will divide you into "Class," (Animalia), "Subclass," (Phylum Chordata), "Order,"(Mammalia), "Suborder," (Primata) "Family,"(Hominidae) "Genus," (Homo), and finally, "Species," (Sapiens). And, you thought it was hard to pass a writing test?
How is this information useful? Well, if we are going to protect the animal and plant world, we want to know how to "do right by it." If we are trying to repair the body of a horseshoe crab, but we are asking it to eat plants, we aren't going to be much help because it eats mollusks. (They resemble clams).
Now the big question. Where do we go with all this knowledge?
Well, as few as 15 years ago, educators began teaching elementary students facts about the ecology of earth. Armed with this information, they were able to devise a simple pyramid structure that helped students gain a clearer picture of life on earth.
I N S E C T S (pollinating plants)
SOIL MAKERS Grubs, Worms Bacteria
Whether in the ocean or on the land, this same structure exists. Seeing it in its simplest form enhances the concept that each living organism has a role to play in keeping our fragile ecosystem functioning in a healthy manner.
Now that we know the alphabet of our existence on earth, scientists are clamoring to make additional connections to maintain and/or repair our "Fragile Web." National Geographic dedicated an entire issue to this subject in February of 1999. It made note of many issues that are relevant to our concerns today.
The infamous Horseshoe Crab, mentioned earlier, used to be ground up by the millions and used for fertilizer. But their blood has been found to be far more valuable than that. It can be used to detect contamination in drugs and medical equipment. Their demise on the Northeastern Coast of the United States may signal the extinction of the Red Knot Shorebird, who rely upon Horseshoe Crab eggs for food. (Now, rather than being used for fertilizer, they are being used for fishing bait).
Before his death, Steve Irwin reported that the Alligator's ability to live in even the most deadly-bacteria-ridden waters, was being researched in an attempt to help mankind fight off diseases such as salmonella and bacterial meningitis.
And, while the Animal Kingdom produces as-yet-undocumented species that further help us understand our world, the Plant Kingdom presents even more possibilities. A natural steroid was recently found in the liver of the dogfish shark. It promises to be a major player in the fight against cancers. Surprisingly though, this same substance was also found in the bark of a deciduous tree growing in Asia and Africa. Scientists believe that "both the shark and the tree bark were working on ways to defend themselves against organisms that attack them."(National Geographic, February, 1999).
Furthermore, in spite of the promise of genetically modified crops, there may be disastrous results from the cross-pollination occurring within families of plants that inadvertently "catch" their pollen. Some believe the demise of millions of bees was a direct result of this "assault on the earth."
GM crops were originally designed to increase production. Given a special propensity to resist the devastating effect of pesticides so they could receive a strong dose that would protect them through their growing cycle, their on insects that are millions of years old and who have evolved throughout all earth's changes, is as yet undiagnosed. We obviously need the beneficial insects to pollinate our crops, but where do we draw the line?
During the 1980's an experiment was carried out on the foothills of Southern Colorado. The agricultural farmers of the area were divided along a highway. On the South side of the highway they were asked to use ONLY beneficial insects, (which would be provided to them free), in their attempts to protect their crops against unwanted insects. They were asked to till in their crops at the end of the year, and to rotate them according to soil analysis. The experiment continued for 5 years. The folk on the North side of the highway continued farming with insecticides and fertilizers. At the end of the experiment, yields were up on the natural "organic" method of farming, while the other farmers had suffered an actual loss of yield, due to soil that would not retain the sparse moisture of the final year. The farmers taking part in this "experiment" have never returned to their previous methods - and, those on the north side of the highway? They have adapted the same methods.
Others too, are learning to work WITH the plants and soils. Observing their needs and perhaps, their original purposes they have used plants to amend soils. Over-fertilizing has caused many of this country's lands to become alkaline in nature. Crops that love this alkaline soil, such as celery and pigweed, absorb the calcium, thus amending the soil and, in the case of celery, become food.
Organic farmers are cross-breading (not genetically modifying), certain strains of fruits and vegetables and coming up with tasty, healthy products that are naturally resistant to pests. The difference between cross-pollinating and genetic modification, is that the seeds remain viable and can be planted and harvested again and again.
It might be noted that even the woodlands contain dandelions but they bloom once only once a season, and settle in as a low-lying green plant. The floating seeds have to wait until the following year to take root and bloom. Why? The soil is too acidic to support more than one blooming. They like the alkaline soil we induce in our yards.
Aren't we funny? We love to box up our world and present it in a nice, neat package. But, to learn from it (and that was what taxonomy was originally intended to do), we have to become involved in the more subtle characteristics of plants and animals. It is time to take our knowledge to the next level. We know the alphabet concerning plant and animal life. If we put this knowledge together properly, we can "make the words" of protection, interaction and change and advance our planet into a more suitable habitat for us all.