The Mathematics of Biodiversity (Part 6)

Here are two fun botany stories I learned today from Lou Jost.

The decline and fall of the Roman Empire

I thought Latin was a long-dead language… except in Finland, where 75,000 people regularly listen to the news in Latin. That’s cool, but surely the last time someone seriously needed to write in Latin was at least a century ago… right?

No! Until the beginning of 2012, botanists reporting new species were required to do so in Latin.

Like this:

Arbor ad 8 alta, raminculis sparse pilosis, trichomatis 2-2.5 mm longis. Folia persistentia; laminae anisophyllae, foliis majoribus ellipticus, 12-23.5 cm longis, 6-13 cm latis, minoribus orbicularis, ca 8.5 cm longis, 7.5 cm latis, apice acuminato et caudato, acuminibus 1.5-2 cm longis, basi rotundata ad obtusam, margine integra, supra sericea, trichomatis 2.5-4 mm longis, appressis, pagina inferiore sericea ad pilosam, trichomatis 2-3 mm longis; petioli 4-7 mm longi. Inflorescentia terminalis vel axillaris, cymosa, 8-10 cm latis. Flores bisexuales; calyx tubularis, ca. 6 mm longus, 10-costatus; corolla alba, tubularis, 5-lobata; stamina 5, filis 8-10 mm longis, pubescentia ad insertionem.

The International Botanical Congress finally voted last year to drop this requirement. So, the busy people who are discovering about 2000 species of plants, algae and fungi each year no longer need to file their reports in the language of the Roman Empire.

Orchid Fever

The first person who publishes a paper on a new species of plant gets to name it. Sometimes the competition is fierce, as for the magnificent orchid shown above, Phragmipedium kovachii.

Apparently one guy beat another, his archenemy, by publishing an article just a few days earlier. But the other guy took his revenge by getting the first guy arrested for illegally taking an endangered orchid out of Peru. The first guy wound up getting two years’ probation and a $1,000 fine.

But, he got his name on the orchid!

I believe the full story appears here:

• Eric Hansen, Orchid Fever: A Horticultural Tale of Love, Lust, and Lunacy, Vintage Books, New York, 2001.

You can read a summary here.


By the way, Lou Jost is not only a great discoverer of new orchid species and a biologist deeply devoted to understanding the mathematics of biodiversity. He also runs a foundation called Ecominga, which runs a number of nature reserves in Ecuador, devoted to preserving the amazing biodiversity of the Upper Pastaza Watershed. This area contains over 190 species of plants not found anywhere else in the world, as well as spectacled bears, mountain tapirs, and an enormous variety of birds.

The forests here are being cut down… but Ecominga has bought thousands of hectares in key locations, and is protecting them. They need money to pay the locals who patrol and run the reserves. It’s not a lot of money in the grand scheme of things—a few thousand dollars a month. So if you’re interested, go to the Ecominga website, check out the information and reports and pictures, and think about giving them some help! Or for that matter, contract me and I’ll put you in touch with him.

5 Responses to The Mathematics of Biodiversity (Part 6)

  1. Wow! No idea that botanists were once required to report their findings in Latin!

    I have had a couple of gardens in different countries, and the Latin names for plants always comes in handy as common names can be different for the same plant from country to country causing much confusion.

    • John Baez says:

      Latin names for species seem like idea—at least, universal names for species seem like a good idea, and so far they’re in Latin, so let’s stick with that. Writing out species identification reports in Latin seems like overkill, at least nowadays. And I say this despite my fondness for the archaic traditions rooted in the classics!

      There are just too many species being discovered these days—2000 species of plants, algae and fungi each year—for us to force all the discovers to learn Latin. As Lou Jost puts it, now the golden age for discovering new plant species. 20 years from now all the last patches of undisturbed forest will be well-documented or destroyed… or both.

  2. romain says:

    This is a great project by Lou Jost! It’s nice to hear about it.
    It seems to sit on one end of the spectrum of conservation: fully protecting a small area, as opposed to (somewhat) loosely protecting a large area, as National Parks do all over the world.

    Maybe this is where mathematicians can be helpful: by computing, for a given amount of money, how to select between these two strategies to preserve the most biodiversity. In small areas where there are endemic species, it may of course be worth fully protecting (see for example the very small island of Escudo de Veraguas, only home of the pygmy sloth). However, in other regions, it may be better to protect larger areas.

    Your work on biodiversity measures can probably make all this more precise. How about an entropy per km²?

    • John Baez says:

      It’s really Lou Jost’s work on biodiversity measures that can make this more precise! He and the statistician Anne Chao have been working on this for years, and now mathematicians like Tom Leinster, Christina Cobbold and others at this conference are getting involved. It’s pretty exciting! I’ll have to blog more about it, though now I’m back in Singapore and getting distracted by other things.

      • romain says:

        Of course, by “your work” I was mentioning the collective work of all the people who were at this conference in Barcelona defining measures of biodiversity. Anyway, it would be great to hear Lou Jost talking here about his active strategy to help protect biodiversity, why he opted for such strategy with Ecominga, etc… It would make a very nice link with the mathematics.

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